Irish language at risk of digital extinction, research shows

3 Oct 2012

A lack of critical mass of digitised Irish-language content is placing the Irish language at risk of digital extinction, new European research suggests. However, the application of language technology can help halt this decline.

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 that the application of language technology in Ireland can not only reverse the slump, but has job-creation potential in the wider language technology and localisation sector.

Language technology produces software that can process spoken or written human language. Examples of this are spell and grammar checkers and synthetic speech devices used in sat-nav systems. These all rely on statistical methods that require 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.

The Horizon 2020 EU Framework for Research and Innovation plans for significant research funding in language technology, with the subject having been generally acknowledged as one of the key growth areas in IT.

This new investment, combined with Science Foundation Ireland’s existing investments in this space through CNGL, represents an opportunity for language technology research and development in Ireland.

The outcomes of such R&D will help support the country’s language industry. A rapidly growing sector, there are now 166 translation and interpreting services companies in Ireland, representing an estimated €686m to the Irish economy in 2011.

How to safeguard minority languages

Dr John Judge of the Centre for Next Generation Localisation based at Dublin City University, and a co-author of the white paper, believes there must be a co-ordinated approach at European and national level to safeguard minority languages.

“A wide-ranging, co-ordinated 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,” Judge said.

“The current situation where there is a clear and growing demand for technologies which both support and enable the Irish language and the vast array of global languages represents a unique opportunity for LT research and development in Ireland,” he added.

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 programmes 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,” Luke said.

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic