The Importance of Tech in Language Revitalization

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). 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.

Amazon’s Alexa, a voice activated tool

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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