Irish Language in Danger of Digital Extinction
New European research shows that the Irish language is in danger of digital extinction due to the lack of critical mass of digitised Irish language content. A new White Paper, The Irish Language in the Digital Age, published by academics from the Centre for Next Generation Localisation, Centre for Speech and Language Technology for Irish (TCD), NUIG and Saint Louis University, reveals, however, that the application of language technology in Ireland can not only reverse this decline, but has considerable job creation potential in the wider language technology and localisation sector.
Language technology produces software that can process spoken or written human language. Well-known examples of language technology software include spell and grammar checkers, interactive personal assistants on smartphones eg iPhone Siri, web search engines and synthetic speech devices used in car navigations systems. These all rely on statistical methods that require incredibly large amounts of written or spoken data. For languages, such as Irish, with relatively few speakers, it is difficult to acquire the needed mass of data.
There are a number of difficulties encountered in digitising Irish language content:
• No standard spoken form of Irish which makes the development of speech recognition and synthesis more difficult
• A lack of prior linguistic resources - the development of speech and text based technologies rely on the availability of existing resources such as pronunciations dictionaries which are not as readily available in Ireland compared to countries which have benefited from decades of investment in research and resource development.
• Perceived limited economic market for Irish technologies - most research in language technologies tends to have economic gain as a primary object and Irish has difficulty competing with markets for "larger" languages and as such is lagging behind
• A lack of availability of researchers with both the linguistic skills for Irish and the engineering and computational skills which are required to conduct the necessary research.
Despite these challenges, the White Paper finds that language technologies offer significant opportunities for minority languages and can be a major force in addressing and alleviating some of the difficulties they face. Among the opportunities for Irish technology are:
• Community Building: Speech and language technologies are a powerful way to bring together the Irish speaking communities, linking the traditional Gaeltacht areas, the network of Irish speakers across the country and the global community outside of Ireland.
• Education: Technology can have a major impact on language learning support.
• Inclusion: For many with visual and vocal disabilities, language technology may be an absolute prerequisite to their participation in the Irish language communities.
• Maintenance and preservation: Particularly with regard to the status of Irish in the eyes of the younger, digitally-oriented generation.
Furthermore, language technology is generally acknowledged today as one of the key growth areas in information technology. The Horizon 2020 EU Framework for Research and Innovation plans for significant research funding in language technology. This new investment, combined with Science Foundation Ireland's existing investments in this space through CNGL, represents an unprecedented opportunity for language technology research and development in Ireland. The outcomes of such R&D will help to support the country's significant language industry. A rapidly growing sector, there are currently 166 translation and interpreting services companies in Ireland, representing an estimated €686 million to the Irish economy in 2011.
Speaking on European Day of Languages (26th September), a day which recognises the importance of fostering and developing the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of Europe, Dr John Judge of the Centre for Next Generation Localisation based at Dublin City University, a co-author of the White Paper, believes that there must be a co-ordinated approach at European and national level to safeguarding minority languages,
`A wide-ranging, coordinated effort focused on language technologies would help safeguard the future of the Irish language, together with other languages, and establish a genuine multilingual agenda for Europe and the world as a whole. Europe and Ireland must take action to prepare its languages for the digital age. They are a precious component of our cultural heritage and, as such, they deserve future-proofing.'
"The current situation where there is a clear and growing demand for technologies which both support and enable the Irish language and many the vast array of global languages represents a unique opportunity for LT research and development in Ireland."
The White Paper cites examples of software supports that already exist for Irish, including Irish language versions of Google, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Windows. Clare-based company eTeams localised Microsoft Office 2010 and Windows 7 into Irish. eTeams Managing Director Nana Luke believes that translation plays an important part in maintaining Irish as a vibrant language and generating digital content,
"The localisation of Microsoft programs into Irish by eTeams is a positive example of Irish being enabled for the digital age, as well as creating new terminology. The 2003 Official Languages Act and the recognition of Irish as an official EU language have greatly increased the volumes of content for translation. This in turn has led to a high level of professionalism in Irish language translation, with degree courses and good career opportunities available."
Language technology can now simplify and automate the processes of translation and content production, enabling Irish speakers to use more software and systems in their own language.
Language technology also has tremendous potential for reinvigorating the learning of Irish. An example is the new 'Language Trap' computer game developed by CNGL researchers at TCD. This video game is designed to help students in preparing for oral examinations by means of an interactive dialogue system, which automatically adapts to the user's ability level. Neasa Ní Chiarain of TCD's Centre for Language and Communication Studies believes that such high-tech games offer significant advantages for Irish language learners,
"The Language Trap (or 'Digichaint' as Gaeilge) is an interactive game through which students can learn German or Irish by participating in engaging puzzles/detective work in order to get through the game. It is a revolutionary new method of language teaching which offers a real and purposeful context for the use of the target language. It is particularly significant for minority languages such as Irish where students may find it difficult to have a realistic context in which to use the language. It is the first time the interactive potential of computers can be harnessed so that learners can become actively engaged with the target language from an early stage."
Language Trap forms part of the education and outreach activities of the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Centre for Next Generation Localisation. CNGL is striving to address the shortage of Irish graduates with the linguistic and computational skills required for the language technology industry. Its programmes include the All Ireland Linguistics Olympiad and publication of a localisation careers guide, both of which aim to encourage second level students to pursue careers in this vibrant sector.
The Irish Language in the Digital Age White Paper is part of an international series, Europe's Languages in the Digital Age, which assesses language resources and technologies available for 30 European languages. Produced by the European Commission-funded META-NET European Network of Excellence, it calls for a large-scale effort to be made in Europe to create the key enabling technologies necessary to realise the full potential of language technology in rejuvenating minority languages and enabling communication and trade across borders.
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