Lost in Translation: The New Language of Technology

by / 1 Comment / 390 View / July 2, 2014

Hey. Hola. Ciao. Ni hao. Hujambo. Shalom. And so on and so forth.

When switching between languages, certain aspects are lost. Nuanced meanings, humor, and the like don’t always carry over in quite the same way. English, a language heavily reliant on context and connotation, can be especially hard to convey. As evidenced by Buzzfeed’s “Chinese Signs That Got Seriously Lost In Translation,” this difficulty in subtlety can sometimes provide comic relief (if you haven’t seen the list, take a gander now!). What many people don’t know is that underlying linguistic differences lead directly to cultural differences.

An article in The Wall Street Journal by Lea Boroditsky highlights the empirical evidence that how we talk affects how we think. It is the minute distinction between something like “ripped the costume” and “the costume ripped” that can determine how much blame is placed and how something is remembered. Many agree that art and modes of self-expression give insights into who a person is. But, it is less understood that what a person says may be less important than how they say it—how the language they use may cultivate certain values and emphasis which reveal how they think.

Now consider how people today are communicating. I don’t need to tell you that the majority of interactions between people do not happen verbally. The combination of being tech-savvy and having the resources to communicate in a myriad of forms has left our generation with options. Texting or Facebook messenger? Twitter or Tumblr? Snapchat or Instagram? The choices are endless. And in the future there are only going to be more platforms to communicate and meet people on as old forms (anyone remember MySpace?) phase out and new ones take their place (what’s all the buzz about Kik anyway?).

Anyone who has ever had conversations that transcended multiple social media mediums can attest that each platform is its own specialized environment. For instance, having full conversations over Twitter is merely obnoxious, too many subtweets is just asking for unfollowers. Plus, the character limits impede longer, thought-out comments but encourage instant information and concise wittiness. In contrast, blogs lead to discussion and support, sprawling paragraphs of text. Each different social media is like its own language. Just as the need for verb conjugation and gender agreement differentiate one tongue from another, so too does the interface and “emojis” determine the function of social media.

Yet people still say that technology is wreaking havoc on our communication—that texting, snapping, and tweeting (among other things) are paradoxically allowing people to be more connected than ever and discouraging the meaningful communication. Various studies and the work of Psychologist Albert Mehrabian have confirmed that the majority of a first impression is conveyed through body language. Susan Tardanico of Forbes writes, “With [non-verbal] communication stripped away, we are now attempting to forge relationships and make decisions based on phrases. Abbreviations. Snippets. Emoticons. Which may or may not be accurate representations of the truth.”

People tend to create online personas. For better or worse, there is a certain way they want to be perceive. Texting’s ambiguous tone limits the personalization of what is being said. The common story is as follows: Online, blip blip blip, the conversation flows; but in person, awkward pauses, timid glances around, and uncertainty persist. Is this the same person you had just been talking to before?

Yet this story does not hold true when considering Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, etc. It’s not a far stretch from talking via video chat to chatting in person. With such “live” social media, some convenience is lost, like the ability to text someone between pauses of an important activity. So then one considers the Snapchat video: a combination of the convenience of texting, but the authenticity of a video chat. But there, the limit is ten seconds with a limited number of characters. The balance to find the optimal mode of communication continues.

By using social media, we are already losing a lot. Text leaves so much space between a person and his/her words. Nothing can substitute face-to-face conversation, non-verbal communication included. What more are we losing in picking one form of communication over another? If I choose to call you instead of FaceTime, what am I missing out on? Each social media platform acts as a conduit for different forms of communication, with their own pros and cons. So what is the solution to this dilemma, being constantly connected, but not always in an enriching way? Is communication in various mediums the solution?

That is not for me to say, but I do know that the myriad options of communication are not going away any time soon. We might as well use all of them, test them against each other and find a unique mix of Facebook, texting, Snapchat, etc. that suits the relationship. Just think, not only about what you are saying, but about what the person on the other end is receiving, before you decide to talk to someone. The conversation may be different if you opened another app.


Boroditsky, Lera. “Lost in Translation.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 23 July 2010. Web. 25 June 2014.

Carpenter, Dr. Jenna P. “Non-Verbal Communication: The Key to Understanding Others and Communication Effectively.” Louisiana Tech University. College of Engineering and Science, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

Morin, Natalie. “22 Chinese Signs That Got Seriously Lost In Translation.” BuzzFeed Community. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 June 2014.

Tardanico, Susan. “Is Social Media Sabotaging Real Communication?” Forbes.com. Forbes.com LLC, 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 June 2014.
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  • Sheila Shear

    Well done Casey Lu. Your insights are well received by this reader. Communication, no matter the format, must reflect not only the intention of the sender but also consider the interpretation of the receiver. Understanding the platform by which one chooses to communicate is essential and must take this into consideration.