Speech Technology Can Help Revive Indigenous Languages

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According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), of the world’s 6,000 languages, 43 percent are endangered. There are, in fact, more than 2,300 endangered languages, many of which could disappear in the coming decades. These indigenous languages are in critical need of revitalization help before they perish.

Traditionally, families speak the native language in the home, read native stories at bedtime, and sing native songs to lull children to sleep; the children are taught classes in the same language at school. For indigenous populations in this country and others, that natural language pattern was shattered by outsiders long ago.

Starting in the latter part of the 19th century and continuing for decades, authorities in the United States snatched thousands of Native American children and enrolled them in off-reservation boarding schools where they were systematically stripped of their languages, customs, and cultures. In Canada, children were extracted from their families and incarcerated in residential schools. In both countries the indigenous children were subjected to neglect, abuse, rape, forced isolation, starvation, and even death. To prevent children from speaking their native language, teachers routinely washed their mouths out with soap, whacked their hands with sticks, or pushed needles into their tongues to associate the speaking of their mother tongue with excruciating pain. These kinds of scenarios were not limited to North America.

Valiant efforts are underway by all tribes to revitalize their languages, but the battle is uphill and strewn with obstacles to success—from schools taught only in a country’s dominant tongue to television/internet/media being available only in major languages to lack of jobs available for native language speakers.

So how can a parent who does not speak their ancestors’ language teach that language to a child? How can an indigenous grandparent speak to a 911 operator or a doctor when they only speak a tribal tongue? What can bring media, movies, and games to indigenous children in the language of their forefathers, creating a new type of immersive learning? How can indigenous children become fluently bilingual, enabling them to find jobs and build businesses in both language worlds? The answer to all of these questions is speech technology.

Indigenous Speech Technology

Andrew Schlossman, CEO of Language Preservation Technologies, notes that speech technology developers have until recently mostly ignored indigenous languages, concentrating on the most commonly spoken languages of the world. But that is beginning to change. “Finally, now, among members of the governments, there is a recognition of what occurred to those communities, and an initiative is underway among all indigenous cultures to preserve and revitalize their languages. The components of speech technology are a way to permanently preserve the spoken word so that it can be deployed as a language for adults as well as children through all stages of life.”

Schlossman notes that Peru has 10 million people who only speak the indigenous language Quechua, but all schoolchildren are taught in the country’s national language, Spanish. “Therefore by definition, the children who live in Quechua territory have a disadvantage before they even reach school level. With speech technology the schools could be bilingual, with the university lectures available in Quechua and even the digital textbooks automatically translated. The technology exists, it just needs to be deployed for those who need it so desperately.”

Spain-based Grusche Rosenkranz, a linguist specializing in endangered languages, adds that language has always been linked to cultural identity, and those ties are strong. “Galician, Catalan, and Basque are languages that have been mostly spoken in the Spanish countryside.” But these languages were suppressed during the post-Spanish Civil War reign of dictator Francisco Franco (who was in power from 1939 to 1975). “When Franco’s troops came into a rural area and heard someone speak in their native tongue, that person was fined, beaten, or shot. Yet the emotional pull of these languages was so strong that the Galician, Catalan, and Basque languages survived, being spoken in whispers in dark, safe places. Now all languages are recognized by our government and every IVR system is available in all four languages.”

Language Preservation Through Speech Technology

There is a movement worldwide to preserve native languages before they disappear. The United Nations declared 2019 the year of the indigenous language, and much momentum has arisen from that declaration. Language is the foundation of pride and respect for so many people, and speech-to-speech technology would facilitate communication at a much higher level.

Canada has been particularly active in revitalizing the languages of First Nations people (referring to the native populations residing below the Arctic Circle). For Roberta Robidoux of Strategic Meeting Designs, revitalization affected her business. “There is a strong interest in supplying content in the language of all people who are participating in an on-site conference or online event, including First Nations languages. We have seen that trend accelerate, and we try to be inclusive and respectful, yet organizing interpreters is often difficult due to location, required build-outs of booths, and limited interpreter availability.” She notes that speech translation technology is already available to convert conference and event participants’ words into many of the world’s major languages; now there needs to be a push to offer speech translation for indigenous languages as well.

Bilingual Education

There is a correlation between pride in one’s own language and educational success. While some argue whether bilingual education is practical or desirable, evidence is emerging that it provides clear benefits. In Window Rock, Ariz., Navajo children were taught in the Navajo tongue with English as a second language. Throughout their education, they performed almost two grade levels above their uni-lingual counterparts who started school in English only. In Hilo, Hawaii, children who attended Hawaiian immersion schools had no dropouts, and a larger share of them attended university than their non-immersion classmates. Bilingual education could be a new window into the future for everyone, and it would require massive amounts of speech technology for daily use throughout school systems.

The Language of Business

Once speech-to-speech can be inserted into any media content, whether it’s commercials, movies, sports, or educational materials, the monetary value will begin to follow. Gaming will become available in all world languages. Banks will be able to serve customers in their language of choice, and call center agents will be able to instantly speak dozens of languages.

As Language Preservation Technologies’ Schlossman puts it, “Indigenous languages may not now be accepted in global commerce, but millions of people speak these languages. Speech technologies can give indigenous peoples equal opportunity through multi-language communication in business, because language is the greatest impediment to economic success—everywhere.” 

Sue Reager is president of Translate Your World and designer of the Tywi suite of software for across-language speech communication. She can be reached at sreager@translateyourworld.com.

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