Language from Below: Grassroots efforts to develop language technology for minoritized languages


Guest lecture via Zoom.

Video via MIT Open Courseware

Abstract: Technology plays a key role in revitalization efforts in many language communities. Without the ability to use one’s native language on the computer, mobile devices, social media sites, etc., speakers are forced to shift to a dominant language in contexts where computing plays an important role, most notably in schools and in the workplace.

I will share some success stories in developing language technology based on my own work on Irish in Ireland, and based on the work of friends and collaborators on the Māori language in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Our successes in Ireland have been achieved in the face of some huge obstacles: little or no funding for these initiatives, general disinterest from the big tech companies, a very fast-moving software landscape, and technical challenges that arise when applying machine learning approaches to languages that lack sufficiently-large datasets for training.

For Irish, we have overcome some of these obstacles through a community-based, grassroots approach to tech development, and occasional (sometimes uneasy) collaborations with big tech. Our work can be viewed as part of a long history of language activism in Ireland “from below”.