Nicolas Kristof recently wrote a column in the New York Times urging Americans to teach their children Spanish before Chinese. Chinese has become quite the coveted prize for New Yorkers: “Chinese classes have replaced violin classes as the latest in competitive parenting.” Over 80 schools in New York offer Chinese, some starting in kindergarten. Ambitious parents have even secured Chinese nannies for themselves months before their babies are born. But Kristof belives that while Chinese is important, Spanish is equally vital if not more important for Americans. His rational is clear: by 2050, one third of the population of the US will be Hispanic, and anyone who wants to lead a productive full life in America should learn Spanish. 

The column made us think: why do we learn foreign languages?  Do Americans learn Spanish to conduct everyday life in the U.S., do college students love French so that they can read Baudelaire’s poetry in its original, do parents force their children to learn Chinese so that they can capitalize on the burgeoning business opportunities in China, and do Indians learn English so that they can pretend to be “Joe” or “Mary” when they conduct service calls from a call center? The love of travel, art and commerce are the main drivers of learning a new language. We need to learn another language. It has a functional use.

But what if we could communicate without having to know each other’s languages? Say you decided to visit war-ravaged Iraq as an act of rebellion against your rich paranoid parents. You’re young, adventurous and full of curiosity. But there’s a problem: you don’t speak Arabic. Very few people speak English in Iraq and all the signs are in Arabic. In 2010, the language barrier is not a small problem. In 2050, it will be no problem at all.

That’s because we’ll have automatic visual and audio translation capabilities embedded in our contact lenses and ear implants. So you’ll walk into a small diner on the street and look at the menu, all of which is written in Arabic. However, when you look at it, the entire menu appears to be in English making it perfectly easy for you to choose a dish. The software in your contact lenses recognizes the Arabic words, and translates them into English for you to view. Actually, this kind of visual translation is possible even today through your iPhone camera. Quest Visual has a great app which translates languages on the fly. Check out the cool video below:

Then you walk out and a burly man approaches you and says something gruffly in Arabic. But even though he is speaking in Arabic, you hear him in English. He’s saying, “Don’t use your camera here. Who are you? Are you with the press?” You immediately put your camera in your bag, and apologize in English, “I am not with the press. I’ll put it away. I’m very sorry,” all of which the man hears in Arabic. He nodds, seemingly appeased and walks away. Such real-time speech recognition and translation via ear implants is not possible today, but we are closer to it than one would think. The US Army is currently working on translation systems in which two people can speak to each other by saying sentences in their own language, and a device repeats the sentence in the other person’s language (see how it works in the video below).

In a great article on the topic, Drew Halley explains “All the basic pieces of software necessary to a universal translator have already arrived: speech recognition (voice-to-text), language translation (text-to-text), and speech synthesis (text-to-voice).”  Halley also points out some important next steps to improve audio translation: faster speed of translation, more accurate translation including of idioms and cultural references, and finally, the replacement of a robotic voice with one that approximates your own voice as closely as possible.

If real-time language translation is possible, would you ever bother learning a foreign language? Perhaps if you are a person of leisure or the arts, you might say yes, but if you are busy with work and family, you might just let the technology do the talking for you.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.