puzzle of linguistics

What makes a native speaker? Why do some people find it easy to learn a second language? What makes English difficult to master for most and why do, for example, speakers of Japanese have such a hard time with it? The answers to these and many other mysteries may be closer than you think.

SMG is far from being just another translation service; it is an Institute of Linguistics. Linguistic research plays a major part in our activities spanning multiple language related fields ranging from translations of texts as varied as fiction and technical dissertations to interpreting, voice-overs, and editing of texts in the target language. At the base of our manifold expertise are, of course, our linguists, who must be native speakers of the target language, no ifs, ands, or buts. Why is this so important? Why is just being bi or multilingual not enough?

In spite of all the modern advances in machine computing, biotechnology, thermal imaging, neuropsychology, mathematics, and a host of other technology aided disciplines and sciences, the faculty of language remains shrouded to this day in a dark cloud of mystery. Even the sophisticated internet and digitally savvy men and women of today fall back on what amounts to not much more than folk tales when it comes to understanding the language phenomenon. Renowned universities are bound to retell ancient rebuses by Greek philosophers who lived two thousand years ago, claiming that language is irrational and therefore one cannot ever truly understand it in its entirety.

Add to all this the dizzying array of live and dead languages, dialects, patois, and specialised languages of science, business and technology and one gets a very thick and savory soup indeed, much like the primordial cosmic soup that western scientists generally posit was at the beginning of Life as we know and perceive it. What role does the science of Linguistics play in this seemingly irrational and boundless puzzle?

Well, the first rule of thumb in academic and scientific circles is, “do not bite off more than you can chew”; and here we have gone, biting off the biggest chunk we could. It will take more than just today and the whole of next week before we can properly address the multiple issues and questions posed here. We have, however, one major trump card that we shall presently play. Roughly put, the principle of Occam’s razor states that, given two or more solutions to a problem, it is best to pick the simplest and most elegant among them, for it has the greatest chance of being the most correct. We shall use this humble yet most effective intellectual razor as a machete to slash through the language jungle of unknowing.

Let us start with the most relevant question for a Linguistic Institute specialised in global translation and interpreting services. Why should translators be native speakers of the language into which they are translating? Is it just a fashion or creed or maybe an old wives’ tale or more pointedly a trade secret? Most would probably say it is just common sense. Ah, but common sense is a most elusive thing! No mathematician has to date come up with a formula for it, neither have computer scientists yet been able to bestow it upon their wondrous calculating machines.

To be sure, there are very high-level experiments with quantum computers being performed as this article is being written, based on both advanced mathematical research and the most intriguing phenomena observed by quantum physicists, which hold the wondrous promise of AI. Artificial Intelligence, according to its most canonical definition, means self-aware intelligent entity, a manmade machine that is just as self aware as any human and at the same time infinitely smarter. When these experiments succeed, the digital era will feel like a matchbox next to a hydrogen bomb. In the meantime, however, only people possess the often-underrated faculty of common sense. We will discuss this and other fascinating topics in our next articles on Understanding Linguistics.

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