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How AI could change our approach to foreign food

Up until now, much of the discussion about technology disrupting the food industry has been around how it can be used to speed up and innovate the production and delivery of food.

Just as important, though, is the potential for technology to be used to help access better nutrition and different flavours. This requires an awareness and knowledge of different foods – and the key to this is language.

The relationship between food and language is a complex one, but could AI-powered translation tools encourage us to broaden our culinary choices?

We meet where the mouth is

The act of translating is not overly dissimilar to preparing a dish. Translation begins with a jumble of words held together through grammar and syntax; cooking involves an assortment of ingredients structured using a recipe.

Perhaps the fact that translating and cooking are similar is a good explanation for why food has become synonymous with bringing people together, regardless of their ethnicity or political or religious views, enabling conversations to take place. As the American chef James Beard once said, ‘food is our common ground, a universal experience’.

From Sunday roasts to Christmas dinners to Passover meals, eating together, or breaking bread, has long been a tradition for family and friends. It’s more than just about nourishment – it’s an opportunity to laugh, share memories, make friends, and even lose friends.

The serving and receiving of meals as a group is a ritual that has a deep-rooted history.

Go back as far as 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, our early ancestors would likely have been in caves, huddled around fires, tearing chunks of flesh off the carcasses of dead animals. Being able to communicate would have been vital for them to hunt in groups and to survive.

As researchers based in the linguistics department of the University of São Paulo have shown, in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, hunter-gatherers wouldn’t have grunted or mumbled. Human language developed rapidly, with people quickly using complex sentences like we do today.

In the 1700s, eating together would have been an activity reserved for the upper-classes, where wine flowed alongside conversation. Some topics wouldn’t have been up for discussion, while others, such as trade, would have been left for dessert. Essentially, these grand meals were a way for like-minded people to be brought together in an amicable fashion.

By the 1950s, families had begun to shift from being seated around tables to eating off their laps whilst watching their favourite television program – the so-called ‘TV dinner’ grew in popularity thanks to the introduction of the cheap and easy microwave meal. Any dinner consumed on the sofa would likely have been followed by a lively discussion about the episode of the program they had just watched.

These are just a few examples, but what they highlight is how, at any particular point in history, the act of eating together has been anchored by good communication.

The melting pot

It’s argued that today’s preference for takeaways and snacks and consuming on-the-go due to our busy lifestyles means that there has been a rise in solo-eating. As a result, families are losing the art of being able to have meaningful conversation over good food.

Nevertheless, we live in a multinational melting point. We’re now able to travel like never before; we have the opportunity to learn about new places, new people and experience different cultures. We may find ourselves in a stranger’s house with little way of communicating, but the one thing that’ll connect us is food.

Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business carried out an experiment using chocolate to find out how likely strangers would bond over sweet food. The project was led by Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioural science and marketing, and the research concluded:

Although similarity in food consumption is not indicative of whether two people will get along or whether someone is trustworthy, we find diner treat this as such, feeling closer to and more trusting of those who consume as they do. In this way, food serves as a social lubricant and is especially beneficial for new relationships where people have limited information about the other person and are forming first impressions. In consuming similarly, people can immediately begin to feel camaraderie and develop a bond.

When we are seated around a table with strangers, we are brought together by that collective feeling of safety in numbers. This reassures us that the food in front of us is perfectly edible and isn’t going to harm us.

The limitations

Whether we realise it or not though, when we’re in a foreign country language with no grasp of the main language spoken, we are unwittingly limiting our palates and preventing ourselves from trying new foods and flavours.

For proof, look no further than when British tourists visit a country and only have a very basic grasp of the language spoken. They may be reluctant to eat in restaurants that serve local delicacies and dishes; instead they take the safe option and choose to eat in an American diner or Irish bar, where the menu is most likely to be printed in English and the staff are likely to have a good comprehension of the English language as well. There they know what they’re ordering and exactly what to expect.

Paradoxically, when it comes to foods that don’t tickle the taste buds, people are more likely to consume them when they are presented in a foreign language. For example, when snails are offered up by restaurants as ‘escargots’. These were the findings of a study led by Janet Geipel, a postdoctoral researcher based in the multilingualism and decision-making lab at the University of Chicago.

The research involved testing reactions to artificial meat and cookies made from mealworms. Test subjects were native speakers of Dutch, German and Italian, who had learned English or German as a second language. The foods were presented to them in their native or second language, and the subjects who were presented with them in their second language appeared more willing to taste them. In summarising the research, Geipel said:

You can use language to reduce feelings of disgust related to some products that are rejected by the population. A native tongue has a higher emotional resonance than a foreign language because it is used more often and in more emotional contexts. By using a foreign language you take away some of the emotionality attached.

A foreign language, according to Geipel and her co-authors, lacks emotionality compared to a mother tongue because it is acquired in non-emotional contexts such as classrooms.

The study does have its limitations. It only seems to apply when people have prior knowledge of the food being presented to them in their second language.

As for food that we have no knowledge of, the evidence seems to point towards a conclusion that we can’t truly experience it unless we have some grasp of the language where it’s traditional to. After all, language helps shape culture and how we remember things, whilst food itself elicits memories.

The secret ingredient

So, could AI-powered translation tools be the secret ingredient? Could they help us in trying new foods? And what impact could they have when people eat together but there are language barriers present?

Recognising the difficulties British and American tourists, in particular, have understanding menus in restaurants abroad, apps have been built that can translate menus printed in the likes of French, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean into English. Many of these apps allow users to point their smartphone camera at a menu, or sign, and receive instant translations.

Ideally, we’d all learn in advance how to order what we want. Regardless, translation tools can also help when it comes to communicating the order to a waiter. In Germany, for instance, if we were to ask for ‘schinken’ then we would be ordering ham, yet it can come fresh, cured, smoked or dried, so unless we specify how we’d like ours, then we could receive it any of these ways.

There are some practical advantages to this. Without the ability to understand menus it’s almost impossible make informed choices, which is a concern for those who follow strict diets or have allergies and, as such, may decide not to travel for fear of putting their health at risk.

Having the ability to instantly translate menus to find out if an item on the menu contains gluten, nuts or shellfish can put those with allergies at ease. This can encourage them to order a dish they haven’t tried before and may not have ordered otherwise.

When it comes to eating together, if we ever find ourselves in a stranger’s house with little way of communicating than through a short exchange of one-syllable words and the food plated in front of us, AI-powered translation tools could facilitate a smoother interaction.

Since the early 2000s, the majority of translation tools have relied on statistical machine translation, which means that they’ve generally only been able to give the best possible translation of a particular word based on the context of no more than five or so words. Now, tools that are powered by neural machine translation engines can handle longer and more complex sentences, and are able to translate words as quickly (if not quicker) than a professional translator – and with more proficiency.

Being able to use these tools to communicate in social settings where language barriers exist could foster the learning of new cultures and the sharing of knowledge. This would create common space and develop community. More importantly, it could make the experience of eating together a more memorable one.