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Synthetics, Swipes, and Strokes: Tech’s Impact on Tomorrow’s Language

Enthused by the content, insights, and experiences at SXSW, I was left without a doubt that the progression of technology over the last 10 years has been world changing. But it struck me as I manhandled the plethora of new devices, forms, and robots, that because we have become so familiar with these interactions, the time it takes for us to familiarize to the newest device, content, or platform is almost non-existent. “Intuitive” is now a table stake, and the ease with which we interface with technology is accelerating. And as I sat in each seminar with my multiple screens, stylus, and opposable thumbs, I realized that digital comprehension and sharing is now simply like breathing. Handwritten notes are actually the last form of capture I would choose today simply due to the speed of thinking processes, coupled with connectivity, which creates the impetus to search and share.

Even though the spelling is atrocious, the shorthand is a language all of my own, and the merging of apps that are utilized to capture and share are extensive—these are now my literary tools. This landscape cultivates a “tech language” – whether it is slang, emoticons, memes, shorthand, or SMS—that is becoming a critical part of the daily communication between people and, increasingly, brands. And whilst it is a long way from being the only language used, is it perhaps the seed of a new global language that is forming—at the demise of our own native languages? Are we going to finally see the realization of linguist Michael Krauss’ 1992 prediction that, by 2100, 90 percent of the world’s languages may become obsolete?

Our children already speak the language of a digital world, yet due to English being the dominant language in schools in places like the United Arab Emirate, nearly 70 percent of Arab children adopt English as their first language (Hanani, see below), which affects how they learn, read, and write in their native Arabic. In China, a decline in hanzi writing standards may signal a loss of national character by traditionalists, but the digital domain is starting to evolve the way language is interpreted, taught, and written.

6 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by 94 percent of population. The remaining 94 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 6 percent of the population. 133 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people. Source: ethnologue via BBC News

The digital generation has found its own ways of innovating its language. Chinese internet message boards and blogs have been created to invent new characters for new thoughts—an example of technology that teaches language through process rather than lessons. Complex ideas are being expressed in the form of emoticons. Japanese emojis were even used to translate Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, into Emoji Dick, a case of transcending traditional language. In short hand communication, emojis have been said to express more meaning/emotion behind a message than just the written word (was the message intended sarcastically? Jokingly? Seriously? Etc.). They fill in the gaps where we once feared meaning would get tripped up or lost.

Four in five 18-65 year olds use emojis on a regular basis, while 72 percent of 18-25 year olds find it easier to express emotion through emojis rather than written words. Source: PRWeek

We experience brands in micro-moments (hundreds of real-time fragments); each one building fragments of the bigger story, each one a critical opportunity for brands to shape our decisions and preferences. Our ability to comprehend visual imagery quicker than verbal (at an estimated 13 milliseconds) is perhaps why infographics, emojis, and Gifs have become a key vehicle for communication. So, in building equity for brands, it is inevitable that we’ll see a greater emphasis on this new visual-verbal shift – it becomes less about guiding simply “tone of voice” and more about guiding “hybrid communication.”


Samsung’s KalimaLock seeks to revive the Arabic language amongst younger users, teaching them to “unlock” the meaning of Arabic words, one at a time. Cheil MENA won the Digital & Interactive Design Grand Prix at Dubai Lynx 2016 for its work on the app.

As technology, robotics, and virtual reality interfaces evolve, so too will our ways to teach and learn this new global language. Whether for students, clients, or internal teams, groups will start to adopt new generative platforms to create, automate, and engage individuals in a “try and apply” approach to language, instead of relying on longhand learning. We can see this in the creation of the Chinese language-learning system, Chineasy by ShaoLan, which demystifies complex written characters with lively graphics that are recognizable to the digital generation. We are also already seeing social robots teaching first and second languages in schools. L2TOR (pronounced “el tutor”), for example, is a research project funded by the European Comission which has designed a child-friendly robot to teach second languages to pre-school age children. It’s not far-fetched to see these learning concepts applied to branding. Brand emoji-tech talk generators or gestural vocabularies may become commonplace in communicating both individual and brand identities.

L2TOR Robot

The L2TOR robot uses verbal communication and nonverbal communication, such as gestures and body language, to adapt to children’s actions and engage them in second language learning. Photo via Plymouth University.


And so, as we move away from text that is purely phonetic and develop a system that uses a variety of communicative methods, will this impact what needs to be considered in the makeup of a brand’s written communication? Is this simply a more experiential (feeling) way of creating assets for brands?

Globalization of content, merging of cultures, voice recognition, gestural control, virtual reality, and mixed reality, all create interfaces that require different levels of communication that perhaps forego conventional language. Or perhaps this opens up new opportunities to speak in languages yet to be invented?

Perhaps we need to consider not just how brands embrace this new language evolution, but how we accept that language will never be the same again. Are we all desperately trying to hang on to a language created by our ancestors, or is it time that, just as technology has evolved, language should too?

Further Reading
Alex Clark, “Emoji: the first truly global language?” The Guardian, August 31, 2014.

Dr. John H. McWhorter, “What the world will speak in 2115,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2 2015.

Fatiha Hanani, “Impact of English on young Arabs’ use of Arabic in the UAE” (MA thesis, University of Sharjah, 2009).


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