LINGUIST List 30.1288

Thu Mar 21 2019

The Importance of Tech in Language Revitalization

Editor for this issue: Nils Hjortnaes <nilslinguistlist.org>


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Date: 21-Mar-2019
From: LINGUIST List <linguistlinguistlist.org>
Subject: The Importance of Tech in Language Revitalization
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Hello all,

For our second fund drive blog post I wanted to continue talking about the
impact and importance of technology in language revitalization. In our
previous post, Becca talked about a specific project with Hakha Chin
(Laiholh).
https://blog.linguistlist.org/fund-drive/creating-resources-for-under-represented-languages-hakha-chin/
Here, I want to generalize a little bit and talk about why I think
projects like that are so important.

The most obvious place technology can help in language revitalization is
teaching and data collection applications, such as Duolingo. If nothing else,
apps like these open the door to multilingualism, especially in America where
learning even a second language is not nearly as common as I think it should
be. Common Voice is at the other side of that with data collection, and you
can read about that more in Becca's post if you'd like. But these aren't
really the kind of applications I'm talking about here, I want to go deeper
and look at language technology.

One big example of what I'm thinking of, and a very important one, are speech
to text and text to speech systems.

This is the technology behind Siri, Google, Alexa, and Cortana. As a native
English speaker, I am incredibly privileged to have some of the best language
tech at my fingertips because so much work has been done on English already.
And while there may still be a long ways to go before we have anything
resembling a true Artificial Intelligence, it's easy to gloss over how big a
difference there still is between English and less resourced languages.

This also illustrates a theoretical situation which may contribute directly to
the extinction of languages. Any time someone wants to use their phone or
other voice activated device and it is not in their native language, they must
switch to a language that is available. Any multilingual speaker can tell you
that switching languages takes a lot of cognitive effort, as I will personally
attest to. Our brains just don't want to. How often do you use your phone? If
you're like me, or pretty much anyone else in my generation, the answer is a
LOT. Too much, really. And incorporating language technology is only getting
more and more prevalent. So if you're a speaker of a language that isn't
available on your tech, at what point do you just stop speaking your native
language and just switch to the more common one you're pretty proficient at?

In the tech industry we make a big deal about "User Experience" and
"Accessibility", which are definitely a good thing, but carry a cost if any
aspect is ignored. My point is this: it's not enough to just teach a language
and make language learning resources available. In order to truly revitalize a
language, it needs to be available in all aspects of life, and the growing
amount of technology used on a day to day basis is a critical point. The good
news is that people are working on it. Under Resourced Languages are gaining
popularity and even companies are recognizing this, see again Mozilla's Common
Voice. Machine learning methods are being worked on which aim to reduce the
amount of data needed to make them effective, opening them up to these smaller
languages.

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Page Updated: 21-Mar-2019