How SMS can be SOS to save endangered languages

January 6th, 2009 - 12:33 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, Jan 6 (IANS) The explosion of text messaging, usually in English, threatens the survival of many languages. But with the right technology, the humble mobile phone can actually be a powerful tool to save them - and it makes business sense too.With linguists fearing that half the world’s languages will disappear in the near future, many language advocates are pushing to make more written languages available on cellphones, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

At least 200 languages have enough speakers to justify development of cellphone text systems, says Laura Welcher, director of the Rosetta Project of San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, which was established “to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”.

“Technology empowers the poorest people,” she told the Journal.

Enabling a mobile phone set for a language, however, involves more than just printing letters on the number keys.

Keying in the message is cumbersome on a 12-key handset, requiring multiple taps on keys to select some letters. It is even harder in languages with more than the 26 letters of English.

In Hindi, spoken by 40 percent of India’s billion-plus population, texting “Namaste” can take 21 key presses as the language has 11 vowels and 34 consonants.

That is where the role of predictive text, a user-friendly technology that reduces the number of key taps necessary to type in a word when using a limited keypad, comes into play.

Typing “Namaste” with predictive text takes just six key taps.

Nuance Corp. of Burlington, Massachusetts, which dominates the predictive text market, says that in 2006, cellphone users in India with predictive text in their handsets averaged 70 messages a week; those without it averaged 18.

The majority of users activate predictive text capability on their phones because, according to calculations by Nuance unit Tegic Corp., it is 30 percent faster than using the traditional method of hitting the “2″ key once for “a”, twice for “b” or three times for “c” with a Roman alphabet.

Michael Cahill, linguistics coordinator for SIL International, a Dallas-based organisation working to preserve languages, said “there are cases where texting is helping to preserve languages” by encouraging young people to write in their native tongue.

Native-language boosters in Ireland and Britain have successfully pushed for development of the Gaelic and Welsh languages on mobile phones for texting so they remain relevant for youngsters, the Journal said.

Breandan Mac Craith, marketing director for Dublin-based Foras na Gaeilge, which promotes Gaelic, said: “It’s extremely important that language isn’t something that’s only in books.”

In 2006, Foras began working to develop texting software for the Irish language with market leader Tegic. Once the software was available, Foras started pushing service providers and handset makers to install it on their phones.

Last year, Samsung Corp., trying to steal a march on market leader Nokia Corp., added an Irish-language handset to its line, the Journal noted.

In other parts of the world, language text capability of mobile phones can be crucial to economic development and helping people who don’t speak or read English buy and sell goods.

Indian mobile telephone service operators offer at least 12 of the nation’s 22 official languages, and Tegic says it is working to add Kashmiri to the list.

Christy Wyatt, vice president of software at handset manufacturer Motorola Corp, said: “Predictive text is one of the technologies that has opened up the handset.”

Companies that develop predictive text say they have created cellphone software for fewer than 80 of the world’s 6,912 languages catalogued by SIL International.

Obviously, a lot more requires to be done.

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