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Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance

The Polish Language in the Digital Age — Executive Summary

Information technology changes our everyday lives. We typically use computers for writing, editing, calculating, and information searching, and increasingly for reading, listening to music, viewing photos and watching movies. We carry small computers in our pockets and use them to make phone calls, write emails, get information and entertain ourselves, wherever we are. How does this massive digitisation of information, knowledge and everyday communication affect our language? Will our language change or even disappear?

All our computers are linked together into an increasingly dense and powerful global network. The girl in Ipanema, the customs officer in Dorohusk and the engineer in Kathmandu can all chat with their friends on Facebook, but they are unlikely ever to meet one another in online communities and forums. If they are worried about how to treat earache, they will all check Wikipedia to find out all about it, but even then they won’t read the same article. When Europe's netizens discuss the effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident on European energy policy in forums and chat rooms, they do so in cleanly-separated language communities. What the internet connects is still divided by the languages of its users. Will it always be like this?

Many of the world’s 6,000 languages will not survive in a globalized digital information society. It is estimated that at least 2,000 languages are doomed to extinction in the decades ahead. Others will continue to play a role in families and neighbourhoods, but not in the wider business and academic world.

With almost 50 million speakers, the Polish language is fairly well positioned compared to many languages. There are a large number of television channels with Polish-language programmes. And most international movies come with voice-over translation or closed captions in Polish. All common software packages are localized into Polish and despite the worries of the gradual Anglicisation, it seems that Poles prefer to use their own language in everyday lives. But there is a danger of its complete disappearance from major areas of our personal lives. Not science, aviation and the global financial markets, which actually need a world-wide lingua franca. We mean the many areas of life in which it is far more important to be close to a country’s citizens than to international partners–domestic policies, for example, administrative procedures, the law, culture and shopping.

The status of a language depends not only on the number of speakers or books, computer programmes, films and TV stations that use it, but also on the presence of the language in the digital information space and software applications. Here too, the Polish language is fairly well-placed: the Polish Wikipedia is the one of the largest in the world, and with more than 2 million registered domains, the top level domain .pl (“Polska”) is one of the world’s largest country-specific top level domains. (In the US only very few websites actually use the .us top level domain.)

In the field of language technology, the Polish language is also well equipped with products, technologies and resources. There are applications and tools for speech synthesis, speech recognition, spelling correction, and grammar checking. There are also many applications for automatically translating language, even though these often fail to produce linguistically and idiomatically correct translations, especially when Polish is the source language. This is mainly due to the specific linguistic characteristics of the Polish language.

After personal computers, networks, miniaturisation, multimedia, mobile devices and cloud-computing, the next generation of technology will feature software that understands not just spoken or written letters and sounds but entire words and sentences, and supports users far better because it speaks, knows and understands their language. Forerunners of such developments are the free online service Google Translate that translates between 57 languages, IBM’s supercomputer Watson that was able to defeat the US-champion in the game of “Jeopardy”, and Apple’s mobile assistant Siri for the iPhone that can react to voice commands and answer questions in English, German, French and Japanese. But not in Polish.

The next generation of information technology will master human language to such an extent that human users will be able to communicate using the technology in their own language. Devices will be able to automatically find the most important news and information from the world’s digital knowledge store in reaction to easy-to-use voice commands. Language-enabled technology will be able to translate automatically or assist interpreters; summarise conversations and documents; and support users in learning scenarios.

The next generation of information and communication technologies will enable industrial and service robots (currently under development in research labs) to faithfully understand what their users want them to do and then proudly report on their achievements.

This level of performance means going way beyond simple character sets and lexicons, spell checkers and pronunciation rules. The technology must move on from simplistic approaches and start modelling language in an all-encompassing way, taking syntax as well as semantics into account to understand the drift of questions and generate rich and relevant answers,

However, there is a yawning technological gap between English and Polish, and it is currently getting wider. Europe lost several very promising high-tech innovations to the US, where there is greater continuity in their strategic research planning and more financial backing for bringing new technologies to the market. In the race for technology innovation, an early start with a visionary concept will only ensure a competitive advantage if you can actually make it over the finish line. Otherwise all you get is an honorary mention in Wikipedia.

Every international technology competition tends to show that results for the automatic analysis of English are far better than those for Polish, even though (or precisely because) the methods of analysis are similar, if not identical. This holds true for extracting information from texts, grammar checking, machine translation and a whole range of other applications.

Many researchers reckon that these setbacks are due to the fact that, for fifty years now, the methods and algorithms of computational linguistics and language technology application research have first and foremost focused on English. However, other researchers believe that English is inherently better suited to computer processing. And languages such as Spanish and French are also a lot easier to process than Polish using current methods. This means that we need a dedicated, consistent, and sustainable research effort if we want to be use the next generation of information and communication technology in those areas of our private and work life where we live, speak and write Polish. Only then can we say that we added our native language to the favourites, as the slogan of the recent social campaign goes.

Summing up, despite the prophets of doom the Polish language is not in danger, even from the prowess of English language computing. However, the whole situation could change dramatically when a new generation of technologies really starts to master human languages effectively. Through improvements in machine translation, language technology will help in overcoming language barriers, but it will only be able to operate between those languages that have managed to survive in the digital world. If there is adequate language technology available, then it will be able to ensure the survival of languages with very small populations of speakers. If not, even ‘larger’ languages will come under severe pressure.

The dentist jokingly warns: “Only brush the teeth you want to keep”. The same principle also holds true for research support policies: You can study every language under the sun all you want, but if you really intend to keep them alive, you also need to develop technologies to support them. As this series of white papers shows, there is a dramatic difference between Europe’s member states in terms of both the maturity of the research and in the state of readiness with respect to language solutions. Yet even though Polish is one of the ‘bigger’ EU languages, it needs further research before truly effective language technology solutions are ready for everyday use.

META-NET’s long-term goal is to introduce high-quality language technology for all languages in order to achieve political and economic unity through cultural diversity. The technology will help tear down existing barriers and build bridges between Europe’s languages. This requires all stakeholders – in politics, research, business, and society – to unite their efforts for the future.

This white paper series complements other strategic actions taken by META-NET (see the appendix for an overview). Up-to-date information such as the current version of the META-NET vision paper or the Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) can be found on the META-NET web site: