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Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance

META-NET Strategic Research Agenda for Multilingual Europe 2020

Breaking Language Limits, Opening up New Worlds for All

Strategic Language Technology Research Agenda aims to break down communication barriers and promote digital survival of European languages

Europe faces a severe communication crisis. META-NET’s recent study “Europe’s Languages in the Digital Age,” published last year in 31 volumes for 31 languages, shows that most European languages are threatened with “digital extinction”: they are not sufficiently supported by information technology to survive in a digital world. Our immense linguistic diversity is a defining part of our continent’s cultural heritage, but at the same time it is also an obstacle to commerce, trade and societal advancement. Despite enormous expenditure on translation, currently only a small fraction of valuable information is made available in all European languages, and citizens are locked within the worlds defined by their language borders.

In order to create a Europe without communication barriers that supports the free flow of information, ideas and trade, while preserving cultural and linguistic richness and diversity, scientists at the University of Manchester have been collaborating within META-NET, a European network of excellence consisting of 60 research centres in 34 countries, to help develop a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) that outlines how focused investment in language technologies can generate considerable economic benefits that by far outweigh the costs. Over two years, hundreds of language and technology experts and stakeholders have contributed to the plan. The SRA is to be officially unveiled and presented to representatives of the European Commission, research and industry at a technology symposium on January 25, 2013, in Berlin, Germany.

The SRA details how Europe can turn its linguistic and cultural diversity to competitive advantage. The European language technology community, in both academia and industry, has strong competence in multilingual technologies and is poised to revolutionise how we communicate via technology while also conveying our attitudes in terms of emotion and opinion to enhance understanding. Apple’s Siri and Google’s voice search are but first steps towards this goal. Human language will become the preferred means for communication between people and technology. Software for realising this vision is required for diverse languages, services and devices, implying a huge market. Language technology moreover provides access to the digitised human knowledge on the Web, and offers a means to cope with the daily avalanche of textual data (Big Data) by making it semantically searchable, analysable and utilisable for numerous novel applications.

In its proposed pan-European research programme, the SRA recommends that academic and industrial research and development efforts focus on three priority themes:

  1. The Translingual Cloud will provide generic and specialised translation services to all European citizens, companies and organisations. These services will encompass high-quality, precise and reliable automatic translation technologies for spoken and written language, as well as engaging human translators and interpreters for those tasks that machines alone cannot handle.
  2. The Social Intelligence and e-Participation theme focuses on developing resources and tools to support understanding and dialogue within and across communities of citizens, customers, clients and consumers, to enable e-participation and establish more effective processes for preparing, selecting and evaluating collective decisions.
  3. The Socially Aware Interactive Assistants theme concentrates on the development of pervasive digital assistants, that learn and adapt, and that provide proactive and interactive support tailored to the specific situations, locations and goals of the user through spoken language interaction.

META-NET also advocates the design and development of a European Service Platform for Language Technologies to seamlessly provide language technologies to users and customers.

“Europe badly needs high-quality machine translation software for all European and major non-European languages in order finally to overcome language barriers. These barriers harm the EU’s long-term goal of establishing a single digital market because they hinder the free flow of knowledge, information, goods, products and services,” says Prof. Hans Uszkoreit, coordinator of META-NET and scientific director at DFKI (German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence). Dr. Georg Rehm (DFKI), co-editor of the Strategic Research Agenda and Network Manager of META-NET adds: “After the Fukushima accident in March, 2011, all of Europe debated the pros and cons of nuclear energy, but only in the confines of specific language communities: there has never been a debate on the European level. The technologies we advocate will enable Europe to carry out these debates across language borders and to arrive at a new level of European identity among citizens.”

Prof. Sophia Ananiadou, University of Manchester, which is the UK hub for META-NET, says: “Increasingly, minds meet in cyberspace, but it is only through developments in language technology that we can ensure knowledge is shared across language boundaries to the benefit of the entire community. The SRA lights the way towards an exciting future.”

These technologies can be developed through a coordinated, large-scale effort leading up to 2020, future-proofing European languages, providing new applications and services to citizens and creating a host of new opportunities for the European IT and language industries. The high per-capita financial burden for smaller language communities, the required transfer of technologies between languages, the current lack of interoperability of resources, tools and services, and the fact that linguistic borders often do not coincide with political borders, all dictate a response that goes beyond what any one country can provide. This immense challenge must therefore be addressed at the level of the European Union, its member states and associated countries, in close collaboration with industry. The SRA provides a roadmap for addressing these challenges in a way that will benefit all European citizens and secure Europe a leading role in the world economy and technology marketplace.

Language Technology: Background

Language technology supports us in everyday tasks, such as writing e-mails or reserving flights. It enables software that can process spoken or written human language. We benefit from it when searching for and translating Web pages, operating our car’s entertainment system or our mobile phone with spoken commands, or getting recommendations in an online store. In the near future, we will be able to talk to computer programs as well as machines and appliances, including the service robots that will soon enter our homes and work places. Wherever we are, when we need information or help, we will simply ask for it. Removing the communication barrier between people and technology will change our world. Language technology will allow everyone to collaborate, learn, do business and share knowledge across language borders and to do so independently of their computer skills.

Today’s language technology systems primarily rely on statistical methods that require very large volumes of written or spoken language data for training. It is difficult to acquire sufficient data, however, especially for languages with relatively few speakers. Furthermore, current statistical language technology systems have inherent limits to their quality, as can be seen in the often-amusing incorrect translations by online machine translation services. However, recent developments promise to overcome these limitations and language technology is one of the key growth areas in information technology. Large international corporations such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Nuance have invested substantially in this area. Europe, because of its rich technological, cultural and linguistic expertise, is in a prime position to lead in this field, given the hundreds of small and medium enterprises involved with specialised multi-lingual technology applica¬tions or services.


META-NET, a Network of Excellence of 60 research centres in 34 countries, and involving several EC funded projects, is dedicated to laying the technological foundations of a multilingual European information society.

META-NET is forging META, the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance. More than 600 organisations in 55 countries have already joined, including research centres, universities and private companies.