Anne Merritt for The Telegraph, April 9, 2013:
From Esperanto to SaypU writing, linguists have been trying simplify communication between cultures. Usually, these initiatives only produce small followings.
The thing is, there’s a system that can already surpass language barriers and communicate information: the pictograph.
The simple pictograph, seen in prehistoric cave drawings, refined in the scripts of ancient Egypt and Sumer, and still referenced today in written Chinese and Japanese. Now, thanks to digital communication (emojis, emoticons) and commonplace signage (the man/woman icon for “toilet”), pictographs are replacing the written word. According to some linguists, this trend will only increase.
In all parts of the world, people refer to pictographs daily. Public buildings use picture-based signs to direct visitors to the elevators, cafeterias, and lavatories. Cashiers at many fast food chains have pictographic registers, clicking on pictures of burgers and fries to input orders. Even popular game apps such as Angry Birds are languageless programs, guiding users with arrows and other icons.
Some linguists are predicting that this will be the future of language. Not a global lingua franca of English (or Mandarin, or Spanish), nor an overhaul of the written word to accommodate foreign language learners. Instead, as communication becomes more digital and visual, we will see more pictures in the place of written language.
Nowadays, pictographs are standardised in international transit hubs like airports and train stations. As these places expand their services, new icons are being created. Look around an airport and you’ll see wordless signs showing where to use wifi, get a shoe shine, or find the nearest bar. International travellers can navigate any airport thanks to these pictographs.
As communities become more multicultural, and as tourism increases, these icons will likely expand into urban areas. In 10 or 20 years, we will be able to navigate city maps, use a bank machine, order meals in restaurants… all without language barriers, or any written language at all.
The question is, if we can reduce language barriers in everyday situations, to what extent do we reduce the incentive for language learning? If we can navigate a foreign place with signs and pictures, doesn’t language study become a waste of time?
An increase in pictographs could certainly make travel easier, helping foreign visitors navigate cities and sites without worrying about communication breakdowns. It could also help immigrants and expats find the amenities they need when they first arrive in their adopted country of residence. For stopover tourists, or overwhelmed newcomers, these images can definitely reduce the urgency of language learning.
But while pictographs may help a person get around with minimal stress, they don’t really help human interaction. Most tourists I’ve met feel frustrated and embarrassed, pointing at pictures and making caveman-like noises to express a basic thought.
Also, while those travelling abroad may have less incentive to learn the local tongue, tourism isn’t the only motive for language learning. Many young Britons learn foreign languages as a career tool, and the demand for this job skill is increasing. Multinational companies seek workers with foreign language business skills, which means speaking, writing, and other communication. Even if pictographic signs pop up on every building in the country, the tourism industry will still look to hire staff that can talk to or correspond with foreign visitors.
Pictographs may help a multilingual community understand public signage in their area. It may simplify the use of automated machines like cashpoints and parking metres. When it comes to communicating with other people though, for work or pleasure, it can’t replace the old fashioned skill of knowing a foreign language.