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Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance

The Welsh Language in the Digital Age — Executive Summary

Language is the primary means of communication between humans. It allows us to express ideas and feelings, helps us to learn and teach, is essential for living, is the primary vehicle of transmission of culture, and is a symbol of identity. In our current level of globalization, we have many ways to easily communicate with people from all over the world. For example, the new information and communication technologies have enabled the development of social networks that have encouraged and enhanced interaction between people from virtually all countries and cultures. Also, in recent years, we have seen large movements of foreign people between our countries, i.e. tourism or immigration that creates the necessity for communication among different languages. This cross-lingual communication problem is often solved through the use of a lingua franca. The countries of Europe provide a clear example of linguistic and cultural diversity despite the fact that, during the last 60 years, Europe has increasingly become a distinct political and economic entity. As a result, language challenges are inevitably confronted by people in everyday life as well as in the spheres of business, politics and sciences.

The European Union’s institutions spend about a billion Euros a year on maintaining their policy of multilingualism, i.e. translating texts and interpreting spoken communication. In parallel, English is becoming a lingua franca in the communication between European institutions and citizens. In the UK, as a case in point, we find a similar scenario. As so many public services are now provided either directly or indirectly by technological means, providing and recording Welsh language choice, and the language technology required for activating this choice is now a pressing issue for many reasons. The most salient justifications relate to the promotion of: active citizenship, equity of access to medical services, accessibility for those, for example, with impaired vision, and democratic representation itself.

When combined with intelligent devices and applications, language technology will in the future be able to help citizens talk easily to each other and do business with each other even if they do not speak a common language. This, in the context of recently passed language legislation affecting public services in Wales is of paramount significance. Language technology solutions will eventually serve as a unique bridge between different languages. However, the language technologies and speech processing tools currently available on the market (ranging from question answering systems to natural language interfaces, and including translation systems and summarization tools, among many others), still fall short of this ambitious goal. As early as the late 1970s, the European Union realised the profound relevance of language technology as a driver of European unity, and began funding its first research projects within this emerging field. At the same time, national and autonomic projects were set up that generated valuable results but never led to concerted European action. The predominant language technologies today rely on imprecise statistical approaches that do not make use of deeper linguistic methods, rules and knowledge. For example, sentences are automatically translated by comparing a new sentence against thousands of sentences previously translated by humans. The quality of the output largely depends on the size and quality of the available sample corpus. However, even this quasi-imprecise statistical method is far more productive than the labours of a lone translator not benefitting from such technology, or benefitting from realtime sharing of other translators’ work via Translation Memory. While the automatic translation of simple sentences, in languages with sufficient amounts of available text material, can achieve useful results, such shallow statistical methods are doomed to fail in the case of languages with a much smaller body of sample material or in the case of sentences with complex structures. Analysing the deeper structural properties of languages is the only way forward if we wish to build applications that perform well across a wide range of languages. The solution to the cross-language communication problem is therefore to build key enabling technologies. To achieve this goal and preserve Europe’s cultural and linguistic diversity, it is necessary to first carry out a systematic analysis of the linguistic particularities of all European languages, and the current state of language technology to support them. This is the purpose of the White Paper on Welsh.

As this series of white papers demonstrates, there is a dramatic difference between Europe’s member states in terms of both the maturity of the research and in the preparedness with regard to recognising and implementing language solutions. One of the propositions and conclusions based on evidence of the offerings available is that Welsh is one of the EU languages that still needs further research before truly effective language technology solutions are ready for widespread everyday use, and that the language is normalised in technology, and that technology normalises the language to its full potential. Whilst language technology is an enabling technology and not an end in itself for the person-in-the-street, it is imperative that smaller languages such as Welsh receive due attention or their speakers will be further disenfranchised.

Language technology also has a great role to play in terms of recording citizens’ language choice. This ideal enabling situation would be for the technology to enable those agents of the state and other sectors to proactively offer services in Welsh, because citizens’ language choice will already be known to them. Whilst the legislative situation in Wales is developing its discourse for the state to be a provider of such services, language technology will enable equity of language provision for all citizens (at its most simple level routing Welsh-speaking phone calls automatically to Welsh speaking staff, matching Welsh speaking social services/medical staff to Welsh speaking service users and so on), at its most complex, automatically translating documents and meetings.

This white paper series complements the 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:

META-NET’s vision is high-quality language technology for all languages that supports political and economic unity through cultural diversity.