Multilingualism and policy

New technology for Europe’s many languages

Are our computers equipped to handle a multilingual Europe?  Photo: © META-NETAre our computers equipped to handle a multilingual Europe?  Photo: © META-NETExcluding the numerous regional and minority dialects and languages in Europe, 23 languages are spoken in the European Union. But are our computers equipped to handle a multilingual Europe? The topic was discussed at some length at the META-FORUM in Budapest in June 2011.

Have you ever tried to Google something in Basque or use a navigation system in Catalan or Galician? Do you know if your mobile phone can write in Icelandic? How reliable is the spell check function for a text message in Finnish? When shopping online, how often do you have difficulty understanding the English product description because the automated translation is so dreadful? Whether we realize it or not, we use language technologies on a daily basis, in Internet search engines, spell check programs and GPS devices in our cars. As international contacts play a more important role in our private and professional lives, we are increasingly using foreign-language products and services or even automated translation programs. Still, bilingual and multilingual services are putting technology to the test as far as meeting the many challenges of our multicultural world.

Online shopping in English too?

In June 2011 the META-FORUM 2011 took place in Budapest.  Photo: © META-NETA survey by the European Commission showed that every second European surfs the Internet in a foreign language, but only eight percent of European users actually purchase a product in a foreign language. Forty-four percent believe that they miss interesting information because web sites are not built in languages that they understand. How can we eliminate these types of language barriers? And how can we enable business and government to make their information available in all of these languages while still remaining true to their customers and citizens, that is, addressing them in their native tongues? In an effort to confront these problems, countless researchers and developers are working on some clever solutions.

In June 2011, language technology companies, European researchers and research organizations, institutional users of language applications, and representatives of language associations all got together in Budapest at the META-FORUM 2011 to discuss the best way to collaborate on the future of European language technology. The program included meetings, podium discussions and an industry exhibition on the subject. Exceptional research efforts were also featured at the conference while selected products and services were given distinctions in the field. The forum was organized by the European network META-NET (Network of Excellence forgoing the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance), founded in 2010 with support from the European Commission.

Computers need to learn German

The program included meetings, podium discussions and an industry exhibition on the subject.  Photo: © META-NETExperts at the event specializing in 30 European languages presented their prognoses – some alarming and some more optimistic – for the future of the continent’s native idioms in the digital age. “For example, the currently available software for automating translation in 26 of the 30 surveyed languages has been deemed so insufficient that there is no point in even discussing actually using them in real situations,” stated one press release. For obvious economic reasons, research and development in the past has been focused on English, and the processes have been relatively easy to adapt for languages with similar features. For German, however, with its numerous cases and long, embedded-clause sentences, the quality suffers dramatically.

Securing the future of European languages

Experts presented their prognoses for the future of the continent’s native idioms in the digital age.  Photo: © META-NETIn the future, will we simply have to say, “Bitte staubsaugen” (“Please vacuum”), and a robot will take care of the housework for us? Or will that sort of development pass Germany by due to the difficulty of the language? Hans Uszkoreit, professor at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), is responsible for coordinating the network and is optimistic, saying, “With an attractive vision, the right players and a plausible agenda we can ensure the existence of Europe’s many languages and help the European industry assume a leading role in this important growth technology.”

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2011

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