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Google Aims to Protect Knowledge -- in 10,644 Language Pairs
Posted by Nataly Kelly on October 20, 2009  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization
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We've written before about the wide gap between those members of the translation community who fear technology and those who embrace it.  Some critics say that efforts to automate or digitize any aspect of the translation process cannot possibly have the best interests of humans at stake. A recent announcement from Google proves the opposite to be true.

In an official blog post last week, Google announced that it was adding 285 new languages to its Translator Toolkit, which means it has now surpassed 10,000 written language combinations. The availability of vast numbers of languages has become the norm lately for Google, so this development on its own did not come as a surprise.

What did seem unexpected was the revelation that Google had been working with Maori language activist Dr. Te Taka Keegan to determine how computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools could help protect endangered languages, a topic we've written about previously. The company's blog post lists several benefits that CAT tools can offer to language revitalization projects.

While we're pleased to see these technologies taking off in support of minority language protection, we'd like to add a few additional considerations to the agenda:
  • Of the 6,912 known living human languages, only 2,261 have writing systems. Virtually all have a spoken or signed form. While preserving their written form is important, maintaining the spoken language and signed language may be even more critical to language survival, especially at the current rate at which languages are dying.

  • Worldwide, one in five adults aged 15 or older was illiterate in 2000. According to estimates from the United Nations, the majority of these individuals hail from countries with limited economic resources.

  • Literacy is a problem even in some rich countries. The United States National Adult Literacy Survey found in 2003 that roughly 22% of the American population had “below basic” quantitative literacy skills -- they could not use a television guide or compare the ticket prices for two events.
In other words, while written language conversion technologies will go a long way to helping efforts to address global "knowledge poverty" issues and will help make significant strides toward protecting languages headed toward extinction, the next frontier to improve communication is to move beyond text and into audio and video, as we discussed in an article from earlier this year, "Moving toward Machine Interpretation." Nearly half of the world's known languages -- and low-literacy populations throughout the world -- hang in the balance.

 

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Keywords: Ethnic / domestic multicultural markets, Language and market selection, Language policy, Translation

  
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