Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Toward a Common Language..August 2000

Suppose you are a display engineer from Sweden waiting for a connecting flight in the international area of Frankfurt airport, and a person from Argentina approaches you to ask for directions. What language are the two of you most likely to try first? Or suppose you are a pilot of a Boeing 747 on an international flight. What language is the accepted standard for communicating with air traffic controllers everywhere? The second question has only one answer, while for the first you might suggest English or perhaps German as possibilities. However, I think most of us would select English as the most probable answer even to this question.

Over the last fifty years, as airplane travel, the telephone, FAX, Internet, and now wireless communications have increased our ability to connect with each other -- anytime and anywhere in the world -- the need for a common language has become increasingly important. No longer is it convenient, or time-effective, to have documents translated into a native language so that a response can be generated which is then reverse translated prior to sending. More and more international business is being transacted through a combination of personal on-site interactions and electronic communications. While it is certainly possible to continue to have such meetings and correspondence using skilled translators, the most intense and productive interactions occur when a common language can be used.

What about computers and electronic data transmission? Compatible operating systems and formats become mandatory. Electronic data streams are unforgiving of even the most trivial of ambiguities. Therefore, precise standards must be established, or a common operating system must be used, to facilitate even the simplest of information exchanges.

Let us now turn our attention to SID and to our own methods for world-wide communication. Our publications and technical conferences are our primary means for facilitating interaction within the global display community. What should we do when we have a magazine with readers, or a technical conference with attendees, from almost every European country, most of the Pacific Rim countries, and from all regions of North and South America? The selection of one common language becomes a necessity. For technical societies, as well as for many businesses, English has become that common language. No one forced it on us. No government told us that it was a requirement. In fact, a few governments have worked very hard to prevent English from becoming the dominant technical and business language, and/or from corrupting the "purity" of their own language. But is seems that once a common standard starts to evolve, it's widespread adoption becomes inevitable. The more it is used, the more it suppresses other choices. Eventually, it becomes acceptable to hold only local meetings, which are not expected to have international attendees, in the local (non-standard) language.

Recently, we have been able to observe this same phenomenon with computer operating systems, word processors, spread sheets, and communications protocols. The need for commonality to facilitate fast and easy data interchange has been a great boon for one company, Microsoft (in the operating systems and office tools areas), and a great detriment to potential competitors. The big difference, of course, is that Microsoft makes a nice profit from the use of its products while the use of the English language only requires that we learn the vocabulary and rules of grammar -- not the easiest of tasks for a language with many peculiar and illogical usage rules.

These trends will not go away. They will instead accelerate. We are in the midst of a major change-over from location-based to wireless (location-independent) communications. This transition is already well advanced for voice communications and is now happening for e-mail, data, and financial transactions. Once we can reach each other anytime and anywhere in the world, we will be pushed even harder to adopt a common standard by which we communicate.

For the foreseeable future, the use of a common language will be more prevalent than the use of electronic language translators. While such translators will eventually become quite capable and will be able to accurately simulate real speech, I believe that they will be more popular for checking grammar and for aiding communications than for real-time translation ΓΈ with the possible exception of those people who have infrequent interactions with international colleagues. We can expect that person-to-person meetings will continue to increase in frequency, especially among those of us in the technical and business communities, as more world-wide cooperative business relationships are established and as the value of frequent technical interactions and information exchanges is reinforced by the participants.

There are, however, a few unfortunate aspects of these societal behaviors that encourage one language, one operating system, and a common communications protocol that drive all others into oblivion. It results in the blending and eventual extinction of the cultural diversity that makes this world a more interesting place in which to live. It also appears to create an arrogance, a false pride, among those who happen to live where English--or the "Windows"! operating system--are the native languages. It creates an impatience and a lack of consideration for those who have had to struggle later in life to acquire these skills. Perhaps it is the demonstration of some of these behaviors that has created the less-than-desirable reputation of some Americans as tourists.

Within the display community, we will certainly continue to encourage and appreciate the world-wide diversity of our membership while promoting open, frequent, and rapid communication among all. We must of necessity go along with the trend to one dominant language and hold our international meetings in English. However, we should all work hard to accommodate our colleagues who are still developing their English language skills. Having grown up in a bilingual home and, even today, continuing with the joys and struggles of trying to achieve a modest level of fluency in several other languages, I appreciate the challenges of communicating in a language not learned during childhood.

There is so much we can learn from each other. The world-wide personal interactions are especially important. Through such technical interactions, the entire display community benefits. New technologies reach product status and commercial success faster. To that end, SID will continue to build its chapter activities in all regions of the world and to develop even more international meetings in order to facilitate opportunities for the creation of personal relationships which can then be further enhanced using electronic media.

Please use both personal and electronic communications methods to express your thoughts to me on what else you would like to see SID do to develop opportunities for enhancing your world-wide network of colleagues. You may reach me by e-mail at Email or at, by telephone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by regular mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.