I was recently struck by this TED talk about how language shapes the way we think.
Proceedings before the European Patent Office can be conducted in any of three languages: English, French and German.
Where Opposition proceedings are concerned, an Opponent can make a case in one of those three languages for revocation of a patent that is written in another of those three languages. This can add a significant layer of complexity to an already complicated procedure.
Opposition proceedings usually conclude with a Hearing in Munich or The Hague before a three-member Opposition Division at which each of the parties can present their case in their chosen language. While the members of the Opposition Division listen to the arguments in the language in which they're made (most European Patent Examiners are tri-lingual), for the parties and their representatives, who may not be so linguistically proficient, human translators provide simultaneous translation that's delivered via headsets.
The skill of the translators never ceases to amaze me. I'm often listening to a translation into English of complex technical and legal arguments made by a lawyer in German. Not only do the translators have to have a grasp of the technology and the law, but they need to process this translation in real time. And because in German the verb is often the last word in the sentence, whereas in English it is likely in the middle, the translators effectively have to listen to the next sentence in German while speaking the previous sentence in English. That's a great skill. All credit to them.
As I said in a previous post, well-judged communication is one of the core skills of a patent attorney. Describing technical concepts in words can often be far from straightforward (a picture tells a thousand words, as they say). But simultaneous translation of complex arguments in real time adds yet another layer of complexity. As a patent attorney, I often need to work out not just how to avoid the pitfalls of that added layer of complexity but also how to take advantage of it.
There are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world -- and they all have different sounds, vocabularies and structures. But do they shape the way we think? Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shares examples of language -- from an Aboriginal community in Australia that uses cardinal directions instead of left and right to the multiple words for blue in Russian -- that suggest the answer is a resounding yes. "The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is," Boroditsky says. "Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000."