Saturday, August 28, 2010

Communication across language barriers

Had a neat experience while out walking my dog today. We came across a very kindly and very lost elderly Hispanic gentleman that flagged us down to ask for help. Since the first thing out of his mouth was "I no speak-a English very good." I was concerned that I would be fairly useless with whatever problem he was having. (Two years of Jr. High Spanish and all I can say fluently is "I don't speak Spanish".) Luckily, however, he was able to point to an address scrawled on a bus schedule and indicate that he was trying to reach that location. I knew where the address was, and fortunately he wasn't more than a couple of blocks off, but I was somewhat at a loss for how to communicate directions to him outside of vague hand gestures.

Then, in a moment of fleeting intelligence, I recalled the trusty little Android phone in my pocket that I had been listening to music on. Pulling it out, in under a minute I was able to call up Google Maps, punch in the address, have it map out the directions, and show this gentleman the results. Even though the map was in English a big blue line guiding you from where you are now to where you want to be is pretty universal. After studying the map for a moment a look of understanding and relief swept over him. He thanked me several times, a sentiment that I had no problem understanding, and headed off to his destination no longer lost and much happier for it.

For my part I was left with a mix of the warm fuzzies you get from helping another human being and wonder that we live in a day and age where I can hold in my pocket a tool that can completely transcend language and cultural differences and allow me to help someone in need. I don't care who you are, that's just cool!

As a programmer it's very easy for me (and, I think, others of my profession) to loose sight of why we surround ourselves with all this technology. We can easily fall into the trap of pursuing technology for the sake of technology. (I'm certainly guilty of that.) It's worth reminding ourselves once in a while that all of these spectacular devices and innovations are really there to serve one singular purpose: To make our lives better in some little way. Whether it does that by making some task a little easier, bringing us the information we need, making us safer, or just providing a few moments of entertainment, it's all in the name of improving our day to day existence. If we keep that in mind, magical things can happen.