Language Barrier Shredded By Ortsbo

In our globalized age, it can seem bizarre that linguistic differences still pose a barrier to communication.  The United Nations employs 120 interpreters to find out what world leaders are saying and travel agencies make a small fortune by promising tourists a secure enclave of English within a new country. A collection of applications from Ortsbo seeks to change all that by promising instant native-language communication using modern technology.

Ortsbo produces the One2One app, which translates messages into a selected language, allowing for instant, free-flowing communication that is easy as chatting between neighbors.  The company also makes OrtsboTV, which allows for live streaming of television programs from another country with instant translation to local language.  Perhaps the most exciting service is live event integration — an organization hosting an event can turn a local event into a global one by letting participants submit questions and hear the responses in their language of choice.  Ortsbo’s Twitter plug-in performs much the same function, translating real-time between multiple languages to reach widely dispersed audiences.

All of these products are important for helping break down walls to understanding.  The most intriguing possibility, however, is that these services could eventually extend to translating not just language, but dialect and style.

According to psychology research, people tend to like those whose behavior and mannerisms are similar to theirs.  Marketers capitalize on this by presenting salespeople who look like their target demographic and politicians spend countless hours thinking about ways to seem more average.

If universal stylistic translation was in place, their jobs could become much easier.  Aside from using particular phrases and slang words (a dangerous sounding “hook up” becomes the gentle “hanky panky”), translation could extend to pronoun use, which research shows is actually a more important marker for personality and happiness.  A depressed person, who uses a lot of “I” pronouns, could receive gentler and more upbeat messages than someone who is most concerned with social status and the “royal we.”  At the same time, if Twitter and email integration became commonplace, then individuals could talk any way they liked, confident that their message will be judged on substance rather than style.

In day to day life, the app could be touted as a relationship saver.  Linguistic matching has been shown to predict relationship success, so with instant translation, married couples could become a little better at communication, and “speaking your kids language” could grow much simpler.  On the opposite end, the tool could also be used to detect lying (liars tend to use fewer exclusive words and negations, while avoiding personal pronouns), providing a real time gauge of how honest the opposite person is being.

Google is already taking first steps into linguistic style translation.  With the Chrome Extension “In My Words,” users can select words that annoy them and have the browser replace them with words they like.  The app even suggests words for you, and it is possible that Google could allow the replacement to become automatic, such that users don’t even notice that what they’re hearing is different than what their friends are hearing

The next natural step is take stylistic translation and turn it into the kind of products that Ortsbo is currently making.  People could chat with each other in whatever style they liked, using swear words, slang, and favorite phrases, without worrying that they will be judged on style rather than substance.  Language is just one barrier to communication, it’s about time that we start to bring down others.


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A recent graduate from Yale University, Olga is fascinated with the way that technology is changing our daily lives. She is deferring admission to law school, where she hopes to help craft good Internet policy, and is spending the intervening time exploring New York’s start-up scene. (