Anyone who has traveled to a country where the language is not their first language knows that even a VIP can become a second class citizen if they cannot (or cannot at all) converse fluently. Einstein himself would have had trouble expressing his intelligence in Farsi, for example. In one of my favorite episodes of Modern familySofia Vergara’s character Gloria says in frustration, “You don’t know how smart I am in Spanish!” Even fluent speakers can be biased when they have an accent due to certain underlying perceptions that your language skills correlate with your intelligence.
Nobody deserves to feel like a second-class citizen, and English as a common lingua franca just doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately, advances in AI-powered translation can help us overcome linguistic inequalities around the world by helping everyone access information in their native language. It’s not just good for people. It’s good for business.
Language inequality is bad for business
In an English-centric world, achieving global diversity and inclusion is a major challenge for businesses and language equality plays a major role.
What is language equality? In theory, it is people’s ability to access information, products or services equally regardless of language. In practice, it makes this ability as strong in “developing” countries as it is in “developed” nations.
Or in developed countries that are less prosperous than their closest neighbors, like my home country Portugal. Due to the country’s modest economic size compared to most Western European countries, many online businesses have limited (or no) presence in Portuguese. British Airways, for example, only offers customer service in Portuguese during business hours on weekdays – and it is a global airline with huge operations in Europe. In addition, there are almost 230 million native speakers of Portuguese worldwide, the vast majority of them in Brazil (where British Airways also offers flights). It is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world.
As a test, our company sent an email in Portuguese to the customer service departments of several companies with a simple question: “How do I change my password?” Some responded as if we had written gibberish. The majority said, “We only offer customer service in the following languages” and Portuguese was not one of them. Companies typically set up their support in the languages with the highest volume of contact, and unless you happen to come across a native speaking agent, you’re out of luck.
How is language inequality affecting the economy? Missed opportunities, frustrated customers (or prospects) and, ultimately, lower profits. A 2020 study by Common Sense Advisory found that 40% of customers don’t buy products from companies that don’t support their language. Three quarters of buyers said they want product information in their native language. Before intelligent, AI-powered translation, it was complicated and costly to have solid customer service in multiple languages. Now there is no longer any excuse. If you have a 24/7 support center, these agents can speak many languages thanks to faster and ever more accurate translation software technology. Using AI, an English-speaking customer service representative can reply to an email or chat with a Portuguese customer in Portuguese.
Other linguistic inequalities
Education, tourism and programming are other areas that suffer from linguistic inequality. Although there are some attempts to address language inequality in early primary education (particularly in Europe), few languages dominate online (and mostly English). At a time when global collaboration is critical to our survival, most major free online courses (or MOOCs) from reputable universities are taught in English, and the “thought leaders” are mostly from the US, UK and Germany, or the Netherlands. The current pandemic has also highlighted this inequality in education – and fueled an enormous demand for subtitles for digital content in English.
In other situations, English hegemony is turned upside down. Do you want to know the best restaurant in Lisbon? The locals will be happy to tell you in Portuguese. The best resources for travelers are usually written by locals in their native language. Beyond tourism, it requires understanding the local news to really understand what is happening in another country. A differentiated political, economic and cultural understanding requires the ability to process incoming information in another language. How can people ever hope to gain knowledge of, say, Japan when everything they read or hear was created by non-Japanese? Fortunately, technology can make it possible to translate local information – from news reports to restaurant reviews – into virtually any language. We need to reach a tipping point where this technology will be used systematically around the world.
Software is another great example of how English-speaking hegemony is damaging innovation, especially in technology. StackOverflow is hands down the world’s greatest resource for software developers. The vast majority of these developers are contributing to the English language version of the website. While StackOverflow has localized websites (e.g. StackOverflow Brazil), developer communities are limited to local knowledge only and cannot take advantage of the benefits of learning from developers in different languages. That leaves a lot of intercultural cooperation off the table.
The economic strength of some countries ensures linguistic and cultural dominance. That’s not new. But this approach stifles innovation and prevents knowledge from spreading around the world. For example, when Alibaba required their developers to learn English because all tools and programming languages are based on English, the Chinese began to develop their own tools in Mandarin for the Chinese. And where are all the developers who don’t speak Mandarin but want to access these tools? Included outside of the knowledge base unless they start learning the language. There has to be a better way to accelerate innovation that doesn’t involve building more linguistic silos.
How can we get to a point where we are language independent and the tools we build are language independent? Even the brightest minds can rarely speak more than two or three languages fluently. While technology (namely, the Internet) has exacerbated language inequality, it may also be key through fast translation powered by artificial intelligence. In the last year alone, there have been major breakthroughs in AI-centric language models, from the M2M-100 translation model from Facebook to MT5 from Google and GPT-3 from OpenAI. Finally, we will see a common multilingual machine translation model. It is time to use your intelligence.
Vasco Pedro is the CEO and co-founder of Unbabel.