The last speaker

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(from the cs4fn archive)

The wings of a green macau looking like angel wings
Image by Avlis AVL from Pixabay

The languages of the world are going extinct at a rapid rate. As the numbers of people who still speak a language dwindle, the chance of it surviving dwindles too. As the last person dies, the language is gone forever. To be the last living speaker of the language of your ancestors must be a terribly sad ordeal. One language’s extinction bordered on the surreal. The last time the language of the Atures, in South America was heard, it was spoken by a parrot: an old blue-and-yellow macaw, that had survived the death of all the local people.

Why do languages die?

The reason smaller languages die are varied, from war and genocide, to disease and natural disaster, to the enticement of bigger, pushier languages. Can technology help? In fact global media: films, music and television are helping languages to die, as the youth turn their backs on the languages of their parents. The Web with its early English bias may also be helping to push minority languages even faster to the brink. Computers could be a force for good though, protecting the world’s languages, rather than destroying them.

Unicode to the rescue

In the early days of the web, web pages used the English alphabet. Everything in a computer is just stored as numbers, including letters: 1 for ‘a’, 2 for ‘b’, for example. As long as different computers agree on the code they can print them to the screen as the same letter. A problem with early web pages is there were lots of different encodings of numbers to letters. Worse still only enough numbers were set aside for the English alphabet in the widely used encodings. Not good if you want to use a computer to support other languages with their variety of accents and completely different sets of characters. A new universal encoding system called Unicode came to the rescue. It aims to be a single universal character encoding – with enough numbers allocated for ALL languages. It is therefore allowing the web to be truly multi-lingual.

Languages are spoken

Languages are not just written but are spoken. Computers can help there, too, though. Linguists around the world record speakers of smaller languages, understanding them, preserving them. Originally this was done using tapes. Now the languages can be stored on multimedia computers. Computers are not just restricted to playing back recordings but can also actively speak written text. The web also allows much wider access to such materials that can also be embedded in online learning resources, helping new people to learn the languages. Language translators such as BabelFish and Google Translate can also help, though they are still far from perfect even for common languages. The problem is that things do not translate easily between languages – each language really does constitute a different way of thinking, not just of talking. Some thoughts are hard to even think in a different language.

AI to the rescue?

Even that is not enough. To truly preserve a language, the speakers need to use it in everyday life, for everyday conversation. Speakers need someone to speak with. Learning a language is not just about learning the words but learning the culture and the way of thinking, of actively using the language. Perhaps future computers could help there too. A long-time goal of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers is to develop computers that can hold real conversations. In fact this is the basis of the original test for computer intelligence suggested by Alan Turing back in 1950…if a computer is indistinguishable from a human in conversation, then it is intelligent. There is also an annual competition that embodies this test: the Loebner Prize. It would be great if in the future, computer AIs could help save languages by being additional everyday speakers holding real conversations, being real friends.

Time is running out…
by the time the AIs arrive,
the majority of languages may be gone forever.

Too late?

The problem is that time is running out. Artificial intelligences that can have totally realistic human conversations even in English are still a way off. None have passed the Turing Test. To speak different languages really well for everyday conversations those AIs will have to learn the different cultures and ‘think’ in the different languages. The window of opportunity is disappearing. By the time the AIs arrive the majority of human languages may be gone forever. Let’s hope that computer scientists and linguists do solve the problems in time, and that computers are not used just to preserve languages for academic interest, but really can help them to survive. It is sad that the last living creature to speak Atures was a parrot. It would be equally sad if the last speakers of all current languages bar English, Spanish and Chinese say, were computers.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

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