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Multilingualism in the digital age: The need for a ‘European language programme’

Written by Zsolt G. Pataki with Bianca A. Schranz,

The first STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) workshop in 2017, held on 10 January in the European Parliament, and titled ‘Language equality in the digital age – towards a human language project’, attracted many experts and six Members, all actively involved in the discussion. The workshop was part of the STOA project with the same name, which focuses on how to overcome language barriers across Europe and analyses the reasons for the language gap between English and other languages, as well as the economic, social and linguistic consequences of this gap and its impact on the digital single market (DSM).

The workshop was chaired by Algirdas Saudargas (EPP, Lithuania), and moderated by Maite Melero, Senior Researcher and Associate Professor at GLiCOM, the Computational Linguistics Research Group at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.

STOA workshop ‘ Language equality in the digital age.
Towards a Human Language Project ‘

‘The EU should become a world leader in the field of language technologies’ is how Georg Rehm, Senior Researcher at the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence and General Secretary, Network of Excellence META-NET, described the implications of the need to overcome language barriers in the EU and tackle competition with US corporations such as Google and Microsoft. Other expert speakers who contributed to the workshop included Andrejs Vasiljevs, CEO, Tilde; Sabine Kirchmeier, Vice-President of the executive committee, European Federation of National Institutions of Languages; and István Horváth, President of the Romanian Institute for Researching the Problems of National Minorities.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion with the speakers, as well as with MEPs Jill Evans (Greens/EFA, United Kingdom), Ádám Kósa (EPP, Hungary) and Csaba Sógor (EPP, Romania), and Marco Marsella from the European Commission, on the impact of language technologies in the digital age. Jill Evans explained her vision regarding minority languages, while Ádám Kósa explained that sign languages should be included in the multilingualism policies of the EU, and should be made available where they are needed. In his view, new language technologies can substantially help users of sign languages and there are some good examples in the field. Sign languages should have the same rights as other languages. Csaba Sógor noted that minority language rights should be promoted, and not hindered (as it is the case in some countries which have legislation against the use of minority languages), because guaranteeing minority rights can contribute to economic growth. Marco Marsella pointed out that the European Commission is investing millions of euros in language technology research, and is also trying to draw upon data from national institutions, where the data gap is challenging: data should be openly available. Research needs to reach the operators, who will transform it into applications.

STOA workshop ‘ Language equality in the digital age.
Towards a Human Language Project ‘

In conclusion, it was widely recognised that multilingualism is, simultaneously a challenge and an opportunity for Europe in the digital age. The speakers agreed on the socio-economic consequences of language barriers in creating an integrated Europe, particularly for the digital single market. Most speakers pointed to the need to increase funding for basic research in Europe and to improve the way innovations are taken to the market. They also agreed on how difficult it is to compete with big global champions in this area. There was a consensus that small country and minority languages particularly benefit from human language technologies (HLT). However, HLT are mainly developed for ‘big’ languages, thus contributing to the digital extinction of many smaller European languages.

‘Today, the “European Human Language Programme” is born’, announced Hans Uszkoreit, Scientific Director, German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Network of Excellence META-NET, and this ‘proposal’ was echoed by experts and participants. Such a programme, if launched, could act as an umbrella for the various European and national initiatives, to increase efficiency, promote the sharing of resources and knowledge, and to increase the available funding with a long-term vision, while national and regional initiatives should take care of developing enough specific resources for their languages.

Paul Rübig (EPP, Austria), STOA Chair, concluded that language technologies can play a key role in Europe, because languages are a very important resource and, as such, occupy a prominent place among STOA’s research priorities.

The study was presented to Members of Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy and Culture & Education Committees on 25 January 2017, receiving very positive feedback. To keep up to date with this project and other STOA activities, follow our website, the EPRS blog, Twitter and Think Tank pages.

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