EVER since God confounded the people of Babel, we have been left with imperfect solutions to communicating across borders. One of those has been the lingua franca, a commonly known second language in which different nationalities converse. That trick sufficed for millennia, but it could be reaching the end of its lifespan, according to Nicholas Ostler, author of "The Last Lingua Franca" (which The Economist reviewed in 2010). Machine translation software may become so advanced as to render second-language learning useless.
Mr Ostler renewed his claims that machine translation does away with the need for a lingua franca at the Hay Literary Festival last week. Many linguists disagree with him, including David Crystal, who has forecast that English may “find itself in the service of the world community forever.” But we once thought the same about Greek, Persian, Latin and French, all of which became obsolete.
“Evidently, automatic systems replacing a real lingua franca is likely to be a bit different” than one lingua franca replacing another, Mr Ostler told your correspondent. “The process will run faster for mainstream languages than for the peripheral smaller fry. But I think the development will be unmistakable within one generation—say by 2050.”
Yet the quality of machine translation is still uneven at best. Google Translate is probably the best of the bunch. It has 200m users a month by the last count, and translates in a single day the equivalent of the whole annual output of the globe's professional translator corps. While there's no doubt that it is a powerful and useful tool, it can produce embarrassing errors. There are fewer mistakes than there were in 2001 when Google launched it, but there still seems a long way to go until sci-fi technology becomes real.