Unbabel is a concept design project aiming to visualize Chinese and English in a three-dimensional virtual reality space. The diversity in human languages has always been a topic of interest for many people. From the tale of the Babel Tower to linguistic researches, people for hundreds of years have been attempting to explore and explain the differences in human languages.
As a native speaker of Chinese, I learned English as a second language from a relatively young age. The difference between the two languages also attracted me. When asked about the difference between the two languages, I found it difficult to explain the nuances of languages verbally. Since the difference in language is an area that draws so many people to study or write about, I wondered whether languages can be visualized in a three-dimensional world so that people can physically walk inside a language to experience its form, sound, and structures.
In this project, I am offering a different way for people to see languages. Different languages do create barriers to communication, but visualizing languages offers an opportunity for people to experience the language without being required to understand the language. Through this experience, I aim to visualize and celebrate the beauty in all human languages that could be appreciated across cultures.
I divided the spaces into five zones, including “Morphology”, “Syntax”, “Intonation”, “Pragmatics”, and an ending zone names “Full Stop”. Please do note that although the five components are based on linguistic research, they are not directly used by all linguistic studies; instead, I selected the linguistic components that match my intention for creating an overall experience inside each language for people who do not necessarily understand both languages.
1. Morphology studies the arrangement and relationships of morphemes, the smallest meaningful units in a language. In the English language space, viewers start with English alphabets, which each has a single speech sound affiliated with. In the Chinese language space, viewers first experience strokes, the basic writing movements. Strokes combined to constitute radicals, which have suggestive meanings but cannot exist on their own. Radicals and strokes form Chinese characters, the smallest unit with meanings and speech sounds.
3. The two languages are also different in their intonations. Chinese has phonemic tones, meaning differences in intonations changes the meanings of characters. Standard Chinese mandarin has four main tones: a high-level tone, a rising tone, a dipping tone and a falling tone, and the four tones are visualized as the changes on the ground. English has prosodic tones, including variations in tone, stress, pitch and rhythm based on intentions. The variation of intonation space, therefore, shows a more organic pattern.
2. In the syntax zone, the way to complete a sentence in both languages determines the different paths people can choose to walk through. Syntax studies the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences, usually including word order. English is a subject-prominent language, and the common syntax is subject-verb-object, which is also the sequence of the path that viewers will walk through in the English language space. Chinese, on the other hand, is a topic-prominent language, meaning that the structure of the sentence can change based on the emphasis of the topic. While subject-verb-object is also the most common order, viewers will have the options to walk from subject-object-verb and object-subject-verb in the syntax zone.
4. The pragmatic zones contain audios of the two languages in use on various occasions, including few conversational dialogues, speeches, interviews, airport announcements, etc.
5. The two spaces are ended with a period/full stop symbol. For Chinese, the symbol is a circle whereas, in English, the symbols is a dot. While viewers enter the two linguistic spaces separately, they finally reach a common space. My hope is that, despite all language barriers, viewers, by experiencing the linguistic spaces, will be able to see a universal beauty in human languages.
With the aid of The M.I.D.E.N (Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus), also known as the CAVE, I was able to visualize the spatial model in virtual reality and allow viewers to fully immersed in the three-dimensional experiences of the two languages. Based on the feedback from visitors after experiencing the two spaces, I was able to further iterate the design.
Walk Through the Space Inside M.I.D.E.N
The Chinese Language Box
The English Language Box