Do minority languages need machine translation?

This is an abbreviated transcript of a talk I gave at a British-Irish Council conference on language technology in indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages in Dublin earlier this month (November 2015) under the title ‘Do minority languages need the same language technology as majority languages?’ I wanted to bust the myth that machine translation is necessary for the revival of minority languages. What I had to say didn’t go down well with some in the audience, especially people who work in machine translation (unsurprisingly). So beware, there is controversy ahead!

Be patient! Bí othar!

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English as a programming language

Hello from 1980!The first programming language I ever learned was called BASIC. This is ancient history now but back when I was a kid, BASIC was the gateway drug for any aspiring computer geek. As a programming language, BASIC was quite, well, basic – it consisted of a small number of keywords like DATA, READ, LET and PRINT (yes, you were supposed to write them in uppercase), you had to number your lines (which you were recommended to do in increments of 10 so you could insert additional lines later) and I’m not sure if it could even do loops. If it could, it probably had to be done with the GOTO command followed by a line number, which even back then had the elegance of a bucket of sludge. Continue reading

Living with a diacritic

No, this is not an article about living with an obscure illness. It’s an article about living with a name no-one can spell correctly. You see, my surname is Měchura and the second letter from the left is adorned with a diacritic called a caron. This diacritic is used a lot in Czech, the language of the Czech Republic, which is where both my name and I are from. It is not used a lot in Ireland, though, which is where both my name and I live now. So we both end up being misspelled a lot. Continue reading

Bilingual website, my arse!

The “Irish” version of Fianna Fáil’s website. Most of the text you see is actually English.

The “Irish” version of Fianna Fáil’s website. Most of the text you see is actually English.

What do the Irish Department of Finance, Ireland’s South-Eastern Regional Assembly and the Irish political party Fianna Fáil have in common? They all have bilingual websites which aren’t really bilingual. And they’re not alone, I’ve only chosen these three pretty much randomly as examples. Take a look at the Fianna Fáil website for instance. If you click on the “Gaeilge” (“Irish”) link, you are taken to what claims to be the Irish version of their website. It turns out, though, that only the menus and other boiler-plate texts are in Irish, the rest of the content remains in English.

This is nothing unusual. It is a whole new trend in Ireland now and it allows organizations to claim they have a bilingual website when really they don’t. All they have to do is a one-off translation of the text that never changes, the website’s “furniture”. But the actual content, the text that changes often and for which people may actually want to visit the website, remains in English.

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Flags as language symbols – so what is the problem?

Flags used as symbols for languages

Flags used as symbols for languages

Anybody who’s ever visited a bilingual or multilingual website has probably noticed a little widget somewhere in the corner that allows you to switch between all the different language versions. Very often, this language selector uses flags as graphical symbols. It seems like a simple enough idea: you click on the French flag for the French version, the Polish flag for the Polish version, the Russian flag for the Russian version, and so on. It is, however, a very bad idea, at least if you listen to most of the software globalization industry’s theoreticians. There is no shortage of articles and blog posts criticizing the practice. The classic is Jukka Korpela’s “Flag as a symbol of language – stupidity or insult?” from 1997, and you don’t have to google (or is it bing these days?) very long to find other tirades in the same vein (here, here, here, here and here). This opinion has even been sanctioned officially by the W3C Working Group on Internationalization.

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The language selector from hell

This blog kicks off with a scary story. Here is a screenshot from a self-service photo printing machine recently installed in a shopping centre near where I live. The cool thing is that it can be used in several different languages. The sad thing is that the language-selection screen is a complete shambles. Look and laugh with me.

language selector from hell

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