Europe consists of more than 40 different countries and even more cultures. Everyone brings something unique to the table, languages being one of the more obvious aspects. Although it is possible to encounter five different languages within a fifteen minute train ride, this diversity is less represented when it comes to the digital world and especially language technology. As was shown in the META-NET White Paper Series in 2012, tools like machine translation, text-to-speech applications and text summarisation work predominantly in English, with languages like German, French and Spanish following closely behind. Languages with weaker support include Icelandic, Latvian, Welsh and Irish.
In order to preserve and strengthen Europe’s unique linguistic diversity, languages that are less widespread need to be equally supported and represented. Welsh serves as a fitting example here: although the overall use of the language was declining, the last few decades have been marked by revitalisation efforts – governmental, scientific and social – that work towards bilinguality being more common in Wales. One of the key aspects of this is strengthening bilingual communication and representation online.
For many, English is the go-to language of the internet. Not only is it used in communication; a lot of websites also default to English even though versions in other languages are available. Looking at the big picture, this risks smaller languages falling by the wayside. On an individual level, there is another reason for this to be an issue: not everyone speaks English, and for some of those that do, it can be a chore to get through a paragraph they would much more comfortably read in their own language. Once again regarding Welsh, there is a tool that provides a start in overcoming this issue: The Welshify Widget. The plugin lets users know when a Welsh version of a website is available and guides them through the process of changing their browser settings to set Welsh as their preferred language.
By highlighting Welsh versions of websites, the widget fosters an online environment that is more inclusive towards Welsh native speakers. There are a variety of digital language tools that have similar effects for a wide range of European languages, by making smaller languages available in the digital world and supporting their usage. Each one of them contributes towards strengthening linguistic diversity and equality among European languages.
In an effort to reach those goals, it is necessary to know where each European language has gaps in digital support. The European Language Equality (ELE) project examines 70+ European languages individually, analysing where sufficient support exists and where more is needed. The results of this research will be presented in a strategic agenda and roadmap, detailing what needs to be done to reach digital language equality by 2030.
In order to make that equality a reality, language resources need to reach their intended user base. Potential consumers need to know what is available. The European Language Grid (ELG) aims to facilitate this, among other things. The ELG is a platform that hosts European language technologies with the goal of becoming their primary hub. Companies and research facilities can upload and link their projects on ELG. Having one centralised hub like the ELG will enable developers to get the word out about their products, while users have an easier time finding and downloading the type of tool they want.
ELG also allows developers to test their tools or services, which in turn makes them easier and faster to finalize. This is also aided by the communication that is made possible through the ELG. Language technology developers are able to learn from and collaborate with each other, which, among other things, opens the door to potential translations of existing tools into other European languages. Faster development of tools and communication within the language technology community will quickly create more available technologies and resources. The heightened number and visibility of these resources will not only boost individual languages – in doing so, the linguistic diversity that already exists in Europe will be strengthened as well.
Tools like the Welshify Widget make the online experience more inclusive for non-English speakers and help revitalize the language of a European culture. The ELG as the main hub for European language technology aims to provide the platform for projects like these to reach their full potential and work towards digital language equality.