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27th September 2012

Majority of European languages at risk of extinction

A study has found that most European languages lack the technological support required to survive in the digital age
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An investigation into 30 European languages has found that 21 lack the digital support needed to survive in the digital age.

The study was performed by META-NET, which consists of 60 research centres in 34 countries, including the University of Manchester’s National Centre for Text Mining (NaCTeM), and published to coincide with the European Day of Languages on September 26th.

It looked at “language technology” support for each language, which includes spelling and grammar checkers, interactive personal assistants on smartphones (such as Siri on the iPhone), call-centre voice recognition, automatic translation systems and web search engines.

Professor Sophia Ananiadou, Professor in Computer Science at the University of Manchester and director of NaCTeM, said that “in the UK, most of us use software that incorporates language technology without even realising it”.

“It is vital that sophisticated language technology support is available for a wider range of languages, otherwise collaboration with our European neighbours will become more difficult.”

Although English was found to have the best support, it was only classed as “good” rather than “excellent”, since the technology was found to be “in urgent need of more focussed strategies”.

Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian and Maltese are at the highest risk of disappearing, scoring consistently poorly on each area of language technology support that was assessed. Other languages facing extinction include Irish, Greek, Danish and Polish.

The report compared the “digital revolution” with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which helped further the exchange of information across Europe but also led to the extinction of many languages.

It warns that poorly supported languages could follow those such as Cornish and Dalmatian which were rarely printed and ultimately became obsolete, with the last speakers of each thought to have died around the end of the 19th century.

Professor Douglas Kell, Research Chair in Bioanalytical Science at the University, said: “Language technology has the potential to add enormous value to the UK economy. Without language technology, and in particular text mining, there is a real risk that we will miss discoveries that could have significant social and economic impact.”

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