Understanding Context, Not Just Words

“Language is the foundation of civilization” a quote taken from a book written by the Amy Adams character in the movie Arrival. Throughout the movie Adams is constantly trying to convey the importance of understanding the context and culture of the person conveying the language.   In understanding these basic elements you can then understand the rationale for the words chosen to express an idea.

In the movie Arrival, when Amy Adams’ character asks the aliens why they have come to Earth, their reason is ‘Offer Weapon.’ Of course this sent everyone into a frenzy but Adams immediately searched for the context of the message instead immediately assuming that the literal English translation was the absolute meaning.

This made me start to think of the translator tool on social media.   Particularly that of Facebook.   I have a friend who lives in Switzerland and often posts information in French. The people that respond to the French post generally write back in French.   The cool thing for me is that with the click of a hyperlink, I can decode the post exchange.

At first I thought, how awesome…but then as I read through some translations, I realized that there tends to be a literal translation which at times makes the messaging unclear. What saves me for this message above is that I am at least familiar with my friend and am able to navigate what the translation to English could mean… knowing my friend and her general disposition and her love for rock climbing…

I guess I wonder, what about the sarcasm? What about double entendres? What about figurative language? As was shown in Arrival, translation means nothing without context. As we engage more and more in social media, the concept of a world wide audience is real…however the audience won’t necessarily have a universal context when receiving the message.

Social media does a great job of connecting, and helping to speed up the lines of communication, but I wonder with all this connectivity, access and general exposure, when does the learning of context start?


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1 Response to Understanding Context, Not Just Words

  1. sydhavely says:

    Great post. It’s a task that Google has taken on both language recognition, search terms, and algorithms to help it learn what people mean by the things they say. But the challenge is daunting. Language is so fungible. It changes almost daily– by the user, by the culture, by geography, and God knows what other factors.

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