This blog is an archive for my research, interviews with designers and museum staff, and travel experiences as I explore multilingual design practices in Taiwan.
Fulbright research abroad in Taipei, Taiwan began in March 2021.   




︎ Email
︎ Portfolio
︎ About the Fulbright


“or, Sometimes Human Brains are Creatively Lazy”

Language: English
Date: April 23, 2021

Listening to: “Hypotheticals” by Lake Street Dive

Svoboda, Tomáš. “No Linguistic Borders Ahead? Looking Beyond the Knocked-down Language Barrier.” TranscUlturAl9, no. 2 (2017): 86–108. URL.

Associated Press. “Chinese Ban ‘Chinglish’ for the Olympics” CBS Online, April 11, 2007. April 23, 2021.URL.
What do Subway and a Catholic church have in common? (Aside from the fact that in the most simplified version of each, it’s all about the bread.)

Subways and Catholic churches are places where language barriers are particularly thin. Even if you do not speak a word of the local dialect but you have a prior knowledge of the expected performance in these places, you will be able to follow along because the exact same words and actions happen every time you go. A subway employee asking me if I wanted a taco would be equally surprising as a dance break being added to a Catholic Mass. It makes sense then that when I was recovering from a recent sickness in Taiwan I sought out both of these places for a sense of comfort. There are many other examples of places with thin or nonexistent language barriers that are important to the daily life of immigrants, tourists, and culture-shocked exchange students alike because of the temporary relief offered from the pressure of existing in an unfamiliar place.

Of course, any dedicated language learner will tell you that the only way to improve your language skills is to seek out discomfort in your daily life. They will insist you’ve got to walk right past the KFC and sit down at that restaurant with no English menu (and even if they did have an English menu it wouldn’t matter because traditional food is best when there’s no translation available). I personally know many people like this, completely fearless and able to leave their social anxiety behind. I also enjoy those moments of uncertainty, although I find they are less likely to end in embarrassment if you bring along a local friend to suggest that maybe you shouldn’t order that intestine soup.

Increased access to technology has thinned language barriers to nonexistence. In recent years, diplomats and wanderlusting tourists alike have watched with anticipation as instant translation using a mobile phone, speech-to-text translation, automatic translation in spoken conversation, and near-instantaneous interpreting for the professional setting (Svoboda) have slowly grown into common use. I haven’t tried any in-conversation translation tools, but some days my screen time tracker reports I use Google Translate almost as much as my social media apps. And no wonder: it takes almost no effort on my part to point the camera of the Google Translate Instant Translation at any indecipherable menus or signs. Even texts from Taiwanese friends are run through GT, even if I have already caught the general meaning. It’s the language equivalent of checking simple addition problems on your TI-81 calculator during an algebra test. Just in case.

While Google Translate and other translation applications certainly lower the language barrier, it’s still a reality that translation mistakes occur more often than not. The resulting nonsense “Chinglish” phrases on public signage or clothes have often amused visitors to China and Taiwan…but the government officials who see these rough translations posted on the Internet are decidedly not amused. It was such a sore spot for the mainland Chinese government that before the 2008 Beijing Games that they mounted a frenzied effort to report and correct potentially embarrassing English translations in streets signs and restaurants before welcoming international guests to the games. New standardized translation rules were drawn up and shared with private businesses and 6,500 new English street signs were produced (Associated Press). This small story was smugly reported in American news outlets mainly as an example of how overreaching and captious the Communist Party can be, but it leads me to consider how language can be used as a tool of soft power. In my mind, there is very little difference in terms of motives between this linguistic crackdown on the mainland and the Taiwanese government’s goal to become a bilingual country by 2030. But maybe more on that in another post.

Even though translations are not perfect, the technology will only improve as the machine functions continue to memorize language functions and spit them back out. Already professional translation services have felt the effects of this relentless rush towards the Future. Sovoba writes on looking past the fall of the language barrier: “The translation industry is going through a paradigm shift brought about by MT (Machine Translation) technology. Unlike the traditional Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools, MT does not only provide translators with the means to increase efficiency; it offers a completely different approach to translation. Using MT output means, most of the time, checking and correcting ready-made renderings, not writing the translation from scratch. With this being the reality today, translators have the choice of embracing it, or doing without it."

Which begs the question: if there is already a personal translator in everyone’s pocket, doesn’t that solve the problem of language barriers? All that’s needed is technological improvement, not more designers championing expensive accessibility measures. While increased access to translation technology can be empowering to creatively lazy foreign visitors, it should never be used as an excuse for public institutions to be leave translation services out of their accessibility plans.

As I see it, many complicated equity considerations boil down to just one question: how is your institution showing that it cares for its visitors? No accessibility plan will ever be perfect. It is impossible to create perfect exhibitions and train every staff member in flawless visitor experience management. But by lessening the language barrier in your institution by any equitable means necessary, people will feel cared for because the experience design of that space shows that it was created with them in mind.



︎ BACK TO HOME  改變中文︎