Ostler has faith in a virtual system, which he claims will revolutionize global communications, and make foreign language learning a thing of the past. The traditional culture of Theravada Buddhism may not be the most receptive context for such radical change, but the internet serves as a low-cost, low-risk testing ground for new translation technologies. Google Translate, Babel Fish, and Microsoft’s Bing Translator all offer instant, automatic translation across a range of languages, and are constantly expanding their services. The results are often riddled with mistakes, sometimes amusingly. But Ostler believes that improvements in the technology will eventually ‘remove the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate.’ Printed texts and recorded speeches will be accessible to anyone with the right software as ‘virtual media.’

It is a bold vision of the future, and a particularly attractive one to Ostler, who is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. A technological revolution could save declining tongues from extinction. Those who now neglect their traditional regional language in favor of English would no longer need a lingua franca to access the same commercial and cultural opportunities. For Ostler, this is not just a desirable outcome. It also affirms ‘the social order created by mother tongues, where each community has its own language, as if by nature.’ He does not admit the irony that this natural order could only be enforced by digital means, but the belief in its enduring integrity is perhaps enough. Such beliefs, he argues, can be a powerful force for change: ‘The survival of a lingua franca is always a matter of confidence and ideology as much as reasoned calculation.’