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Entries Tagged as 'language'

After digitizing libraries, translating knowledge?

Nine years ago I asked the question “Can we localize entire libraries?” In the wake of the National Library of Norway‘s (Nasjonalbiblioteket) digitization of its holdings and collaboration with Nigeria on materials in the latter’s languages, it seems like time to review what mass digitization could mean for translation of knowledge into diverse languages.

My original question in 2008 came from looking at trends in digitizing books – notably Google Books – and machine translation (MT). It elicited some interesting responses, including Kirtee Vashi’s mention of an Asia Online project planning to link these two trends.

Book scanners. Source: TecheBlog.com

In the ensuing years, Google Books’ digitization program – the biggest and most promising book digitization effort – ran into controversy over rights to reproduce copyrighted materials beginning in 2008. This ultimately has put their entire vision of digital access to a vast library of works in doubt. And the unrelated Asia Online project, which used statistical MT to translate 3.5 million pages of the English Wikipedia into Thai, was stopped in mid-2011 in the aftermath of a changed political situation in Thailand and funding issues.  (Asia Online has since become Omniscien Technologies)

So while the technologies for digitization and for MT – the two pieces in localizing libraries of information – are established and improving, each has encountered some combination of legal, political , or funding issues limiting their use individually for mass expansion of access to knowledge, as well as their potential use in tandem.

However, could the Norwegian program, announced in 2013, and the project it has with Nigeria, announced earlier this year, introduce a new dynamic, at least for mass digitization? Could and should large national libraries take the lead in this area?

The idea of digitizing libraries has generally been advocated in terms of access to knowledge, without particular reference to the languages in which publications are written. But languages are critical not only for access to knowledge, but also for facilitating scholarship and the interfacing of ways of knowing. Hence the need to associate mass digitization and MT.

There is at least one proposed project mentioning the potential for translation of books that have been digitized – Internet Archive’s initiative to digitize 4 million books (a semifinalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100 & Change grant competition).

Any such digital data produced by the Nasjonalbiblioteket, Google Books, Internet Archive, or any other organization could be translated with MT into other languages, with a few caveats (quality of optical character recognition [OCR]; how well resourced a particular language is; and of course the accuracy of the MT). This means that potentially any mass digitization could be mass translated into a large number of languages, given legal cover and sufficient funding.

What about the accuracy of MT, and how useful could mass MT of mass digitization be if there are inaccuracies? These are critical questions for any project to use MT to translate digitizations. Responses could reference, for instance, domain-specific MT, which is generally more accurate than general MT, provided of course that the material matches the domain used. Or perhaps some system for post-editing could be devised.

This is an exciting area that needs more attention and policy support. Books and other production in print can be digitized on a mass scale, making the knowledge in them more widely available. Digitized text can be machine translated into other languages, and the quality of that can be made high enough for use by speakers of the target languages. As much as the printing press revolutionized access to knowledge of that age, so too the potential to digitize and translate what is in print promises another revolution benefiting more people directly.

 

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CFP: Language and Development 2017

The 12th biennial Language and Development Conference (LDC) will be held in Dakar, Senegal, on 27-29 November 2017. The call for participation (CFP) deadline has been extended to 31 May (apologies as I’m just catching up on this).

The theme of this edition of the conference is: Language and the Sustainable Development Goals.

From the concept note for the conference (emphasis in original):
“Sustainable development is increasingly viewed not only from an economic perspective, but also from social and environmental perspectives. All three dimensions are important to ensure that human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality. As language and communication are crucial to how societies grow, work together and become more inclusive, the conference will seek to explore the role of language in a range of interlinking aspects of development. It will do this by focussing on three of the goals:

  • SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
  • SDG 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all
  • SDG 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies”

“The conference programme will also take into consideration other cross cutting goals, notably SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries.”

The conference has 3 sub-themes:

  • Multilingualism for Quality, Equitable and Inclusive Education
  • Language, Skills and Sustainable Economic Growth
  • Communication, Peace and Justice

The British Council is hosting this conference (it apparently has been involved in almost all the previous ones), in partnership with le Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche et le Ministère de l’Education Nationale du Sénégal, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), UNESCO, the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) and SIL Africa, along with others.

For additional information, see the website of the LDC series, and a posting on this blog about the 2015 LDC.

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International Mother Language Day 2017 & the Linguapax Prize

The 18th annual International Mother Language Day (IMLD), observed today (21 February 2017), has as its theme, “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education,” which seems to carry on the focus on language in education from last year (presumably still with an eye on Sustainable Development Goal #4).

The definition of multilingual education given on UNESCO’s IMLD page is worth copying here…

Multilingual education facilitates access to education while promoting equity for populations speaking minority and/or indigenous languages, especially girls and women:     

  • It emphasizes the quality of teaching and learning with a focus on understanding and creativity;
  • It reinforces the cognitive aspect of learning by ensuring the direct application of learning outcomes to the learner’s life through the mother tongue;
  • It enhances dialogue and interaction between learner and teacher by allowing genuine communication from the beginning;
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, thus ensuring a harmonious interaction between the global and the local.

Linguapax Prize

This year’s Linguapax Prize, announced today (as it is annually, on IMLD), was awarded to Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a German linguist specializing in African languages (notably non-Bantu click languages) and endangered languages, who is currently at the University of Cape Town and heads the Centre for African Linguistic Diversity (CALDi), which he founded. Dr. Brenzinger has also worked in Japan.

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Two language museums in Washington

PW logoOn the eve of International Mother Language Day (IMLD), here’s a quick look at the news that the Washington, DC area will get a second museum dedicated to languages: Planet Word Museum. This project began several years ago, based on the vision of Ann B. Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor, and was incorporated in 2013 as the Museum of Language Arts, Inc. On 25 January 2017, the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development announced an agreement by which (pending DC Council approval) Planet Word and its partners will convert an old landmark school building into a museum space. Opening is planned for 2019.

PW logoThe first museum in this genre in the DC area, and in the entire United States, is the National Museum of Language (NML), which despite the name is also a private non-profit venture. Its origins go back to Dr. Amelia C. Murdoch and a “group of expert linguists, language specialists, and language enthusiasts” in 1971, but it wasn’t until 37 years later that a small museum space was opened in College Park, Maryland (Multidisciplinary Perspectives featured an article about their opening in 2008). Unfortunately, the recurring cost of the museum space turned out to be too high to maintain, so in 2014, NML closed its permanent exhibit and shifted to a strategy of moveable exhibits, an enhanced online presence, and other activities.

A tale of 2 museums

The first question that comes to mind on learning of the new language museum project in this metro area, is whether it and the older one are in communication. The answer, according to NML president Dr. Jill Robbins, is yes.

A second question or set of questions has to do with the relationship between the two – both in terms of missions (similarities, differences, complementarities), and in terms of practical links (such as connections among people working on the two different projects). These seem to me to be harder to answer. In part that is because one is new and the other still relatively young. And there are other differences between the two that would figure in any collaboration.

In terms of their respective missions, my impression is that NML is somewhat more focused on aspects of language diversity or “unity in diversity” (the themes of the museum include “universal aspects of language,” “language in society,” and “languages of the world”). Among various exhibits, they have done some interesting work presenting dialect research in the US, for example. From NML’s mission statement:

Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language. We seek to lead our visitors to their personal discoveries of language and languages. …

My impression is that Planet Word is somewhat more concerned with language arts (note the incorporated name mentioned above) and applied linguistics. Literacy figures as “The Big Issue” on their “About” page. We can expect more details as the project develops, but in the meantime, an article in Chronicle of Higher Education by Planet Word board member Prof. Anne Curzan offers some insights into their thinking. Planet Word’s vision (from the About page):

Language is what makes us human. From earliest childhood we weave our words into speech to communicate. At Planet Word we inspire and renew a love of words and language through unique, immersive learning experiences.

On the organizational level, there are some obvious differences. For example, Planet Word is clearly able to access funding at a level several orders of magnitude above what NML has ever obtained. It also has a much larger board with a wider geographic and institutional representation than the smaller NML has.

On the other hand, NML has a significant experience with the practicalities of running a language museum – albeit on a smaller scale than Planet Word evidently aspires to – and in developing relations with educators and institutions in its vicinity and more widely. The latter include, for example being a founding member of the International Network of Language Museums (INLM; see also addendum, below), participating in events such as the IMLD 2013 celebration at the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, DC, and having a wall exhibit – about American lexicographer Noah Webster – on display at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut.

From the descriptions, however, it seems that Planet Word is modeling itself on certain larger museums – the National Museum of Mathematics in New York was mentioned in one article. Also, Planet Word is expected to have a major impact on development of its immediate neighborhood (see article in City Lab, which includes a comparison with the National Building Museum in DC) – not a role that NML has had to play.

All that said, these two language museums do occupy much of the same terrain even as their emphases and some of their angles may differ. The field of study of language(s) and linguistics after all is broad, and there are diverse approaches to organizing museums. So basically, it’s no surprise that “language museum” can mean different things.

A question at this point is what kind of collaboration might be possible and make sense from the points of view of NML and Planet Word, and also for the public, for whom even one language museum is still a novelty.

We’ll see how this develops, but it will be interesting to see an interview of Ms. Friedman that I am told is planned for publication on the NML website. One question I’d like to ask of both efforts is how they would celebrate IMLD, an annual observance that is not that well known in the US.

Addendum (Feb. 21)

Thanks to NML’s Dr. Robbins for feedback on this post as originally published, leading to some corrections to copy and also a clarification on her institution’s range of activity (which I further expanded on). A key element in that range is the INLM (a list of the members of which appears in an NML blog post).

In the interests of economy, I did not get into the subject of language museums worldwide in this post, even though they figured prominently in my compilation of resources on the International Year of Languages 2008. The global dimension of this class of museums (within the larger class of “locations” about language, to use David Crystal‘s term from “LADDA“) is to a certain extent unavoidable (some articles about Planet Word have mentioned the Mundolingua in Paris, for example), but important enough to merit a separate discussion.

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CFP: Language, the SDGs, and Vulnerable Populations

SDG logoThe Study Group on Language at the United Nations, in cooperation with the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and the Center for Applied Linguistics, will again this year hold a two-day symposium (11-12 May 2017) on language and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I reproduce below the call for participation (CFP) based on versions seen on the Language Policy List and Linguist List. The contact person is Prof. Humphrey Tonkin. Note the call deadline of 28 February.

This blog previously featured the CFP for the April 2016 Language & SDGs symposium and its program. The Final Report of that symposium is available on the Study Group’s site.


Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations

New York, NY, USA • Thursday-Friday, May 11-12, 2017

What issues of language and communication are raised, or should be raised, by the efforts of the United Nations to reach the most vulnerable populations through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the UN in 2015? Particular attention will be given to language issues surrounding refugees and their children, migrants, and minority communities.

When the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the 17 SDGs 2015-2030, proponents foresaw a comprehensive and cooperative effort extending beyond the United Nations and its Member States to incorporate civil society in general. The SDGs, they said, should “leave no one behind” and should emerge from a dialogue in which all parties collaborate in a spirit of equality. Moreover, the most vulnerable populations need to be first on the agenda.

These vulnerable populations speak a multiplicity of languages often little understood by development specialists, and they are often isolated or neglected, and unconnected to those who seek to help. Reaching them requires reaching across languages, and it implies listening to their concerns, freely expressed. Is the UN ready for such an effort? Though the SDGs are largely silent on language issues, sustainability requires two-way, democratic communication in multiple languages.

The world is witnessing the largest population movement since World War II: refugees who must be returned to their homes or resettled, displaced children who need education, migrants who must acquire new languages to become productive in new circumstances. In negotiating their way in foreign environments, they must deal with officials who often do not know their languages. The SDGs identify problems but say little about reaching these populations.

To carry out the SDGs through dialogue and understanding, we must reach vulnerable populations in languages they understand. Preserving cultural identity while communicating across languages must become a recognized issue: we must educate through languages young people understand, deliver health care comprehensibly, and reach refugees and migrants through comprehensible dialogue. Attaining all seventeen SDGs requires mutual comprehension at every level.

The Study Group on Language and the UN drew attention to the absence of language issues in formulating the SDGs through a symposium it organized in April 2016 and a subsequent report. We return to this topic in our 2017 symposium, but with special stress on vulnerable populations.

The organizers welcome proposals for 20-minute papers on topics linking the SDGs with vulnerable populations, such as:

  • Language as a factor in sustainable development
  • Language policy for refugees, migrants, and displaced populations
  • Language & migration
  • Language as it relates to race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, economic status, or other factors
  • Language & education of refugees and migrants
  • Language & quality education for vulnerable populations (Goal 4)
  • Language & mother-tongue education (Goal 4)
  • Language & gender equality (Goal 5)
  • Language & economic growth (Goal 8)
  • Language & reducing inequalities (Goal 10)
  • Language & peace & justice (Goal 16)
  • NGOs, language & vulnerable populations
  • UN language policy & implementation of the SDGs
  • The role of regional or minority languages
  • Language & stateless nations

Please send proposals (200 words or less, accompanied by a biography of approximately 50 words) to the chair of the symposium organizing committee, Prof. Humphrey Tonkin, at tonkin (at) hartford (dot) edu, by February 28, 2017.  The committee expects to make final decisions on the program by March 15.

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Reimagining “language barrier”

When you read or hear “language barrier,” or use the term yourself, what image comes to mind? Judging by the frequency of expressions like “breaking” or “overcoming” or even “dissolving” a language barrier, it’s probably something like a wall. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to think of that barrier as a gap, or perhaps a divide?

Paulo Zerbato via quotesgram.comIf language, or more precisely the lack of a language in common, may be a barrier, so too language may be a bridge. And only by thinking of that barrier as a divide across which understanding is hindered – despite common resort to gestures, pantomime, and even shouting – can the role of language as a bridge be appreciated. That bridge may be learning one another’s or a third language, or resort to an interpreter or other mechanism for translation.

I have in the past suggested actually replacing the term “language barrier” with “language gap” or “language divide” (like “digital divide”), as I also was thinking of barrier in the more narrow sense mentioned above. However, given how ensconced the term seems to be in English, it may be more productive to change the implicit image of barrier in the context of communication in multilingual settings.

But what of the concept of “language barrier”? Even leaving aside the types of metaphor used, there are problems with its definition. Several dictionaries frame it in terms of “speaking different languages,” which I think misses the essential issue (emphasis added in examples below):

  • “absence of communication between people who speak different languages“- Collins
  • “a difficulty for people communicating because they speak different languages” – Merriam-Webster
  • “barrier to communication resulting from speaking different languages” – The Free Dictionary
  • “a conceptual barrier to effective communication, that occurs when people who speak different languages attempt to communicate with each other” – Wordnik

Contrast these with what I consider to be a better definition (emphasis added):

trust building image from winningware.comThe key issue is the lack of some language in common (a language bridge) to facilitate communication, not what (sets of) languages people may speak. So Oxford has the right nail, if you will, but then hits it on the side of the head by framing the problem as “people who are unable to speak….”

Better to say that they do not have any common language or linguistic variety in which they both have sufficient skills to communicate.

Another reason to think of “language barrier” as a gap rather than some sort of wall, is that a gap may be wider or narrower. Some groups of languages, while considered different, are in fact close enough that with a greater or lesser degree of effort – and indeed each speaker’s skill in their respective language repertoire – communication is possible on some level. Remember the old saw, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades”? Well close can also count in languages and communication, where the “bridging” of the barrier is consequently not as much of a challenge.

So “language barrier,” if we must continue to use that term, is neither something that can be “broken” nor a condition that is either all there or not there at all. It really is like a gap or divide. And by linking this revised “barrier” metaphor with the complementary metaphor of language as a “bridge,” we expand the ways we can discuss communication across gaps of understanding related to language.

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