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Minding our language

Technology is becoming increasingly fluent in Maltese, says Thomas Pace, executive director of the National Council for the Maltese language.

Does the Maltese language lend itself well to technology?

All languages lend themselves well to technology, and Maltese is no exception.

We are witnessing a digital revolution that is impacting society in general, and our means of communication in particular. Through various online tools and applications, gigabytes of texts are transferred every day around the world.

Language tools and resources, such as software, apps and mobile information services are constantly being developed. They facilitate e-learning environments, machine translation, speech interaction, social networking platforms and website localisation, among others.

Technology is also being used as a medium for people to learn a language in an innovative way, for example by means of digital games.

Contemporary technologies like laptops, tablets and smartphones give communication a new dimension. These communication developments have given rise to the relatively new research field of language technology – this is about seeking ways of how to make technological devices interact with humans using natural language.

Language technology is generally acknowledged as one of the key growth areas in IT, with large international corporations making substantial investments in this area. In Europe, hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises have specialised in certain language technology applications and services in various languages.

Language technology allows people to collaborate, learn, do business and share knowledge across language borders and independently of their computer skills. One finds language technology solutions in many places, from electronic votes to reading texts and instructions on screen.

When you use a spell-checker on your PC or mobile phone, there is a language technology programme behind it.

And yet, only few of these products understand the Maltese language. This is not because Maltese does not lend itself well to technology or because it is difficult to be programmed. Rather, it’s because Maltese has a relatively small community of speakers and, therefore, a small market.

This makes it difficult for us to find readily available applications and open source software in Maltese – thus, every application has to be developed from scratch and tailor-made.

This is not a problem we are facing alone. In this digital age, several other European lesser-spoken languages like Latvian, Lithuanian, Irish and Icelandic are struggling not to lag behind as they are technologically under-represented and under-resourced.

The European Union is committed to support the development of language tools to facilitate communication among all its citizens and to foster a more multilingual environment. This led to the formation of Meta-Net, a network of research centres aimed at building the technological foundations of this multilingual European information society.

Malta is represented in Meta-Net by the University’s Department of Intelligent Computer Systems and Institute of Linguistics in collaboration with the National Council for the Maltese Language and the Malta Council for Science and Technology.

According to a Eurobarometer survey (User Language Preferences Online, May 2011), 57 per cent of European internet users purchase goods and services in languages that are not their native language. Another European Commission survey published a few weeks ago (Europeans And Their Languages) shows that Europeans are less likely to be able to communicate online in a foreign language, with only 39 per cent saying that they can.

Although English is the most common online foreign language, followed by French, German and Spanish, web translation and websites in other languages are increasing every day. English might still be the lingua franca of web content, but the situation is changing, particularly for Asian and Arabic languages. Websites in Maltese are on the increase, and one must also acknowledge the recent publication of the first e-books in Maltese, both for children and adults.

What technological developments have been made in relation to the Maltese language?

The University’s Institute of Linguistics and the Faculty of ICT’s Department of Intelligent Computer Systems have developed a Maltese Language Resource Server. The aim behind this server is to create and make basic language resources available for the Maltese language, both with respect to data and processing tools for Maltese.

The server includes a written corpus of over 110 million words, which provides the linguistic materials needed for creating language technology tools and services for Maltese, such as text-to-speech interfaces, lexical data analysis and research, and terminological glossaries.

This corpus is a vital resource for the development of a Maltese spell-checker, which is currently under way. In fact, currently, two spell-checkers are being developed, one by the University’s Institute of Linguistics and the other one by a private company.

The Institute of Linguistics also offers a B.Sc. (Hons) course in Human Language Technology with the aim of training people in the field of language technology.

We should also mention the initiative of a group of Young Enterprise students who worked on producing a T9 mobile application for Maltese.

Nowadays, all European languages have at least one online dictionary and they are also rapidly developing more tools. Currently, a team of experts led by Prof. Manwel Mifsud is updating Joseph Aquilina’s Maltese-English dictionary, adjusting some shortcomings, adding entries and definitions, and revising the orthography in accordance with the two recent orthographic reforms.

The aim is to have an updated, online, easily accessible national dictionary of Maltese within a few years that reaches the same high standards as the online dictionaries of other languages. The updated dictionary will not only serve to reflect the richness of our language but will also give a clear direction to students, teachers, journalists, translators, and all those who use Maltese in their work or in their writing, both in Malta and abroad.

A permanent agreement between the Ministry of Education, the University and Midsea Books Ltd was signed on July 6. This is being supported by the National Council for the Maltese Language and the Institute of Linguistics.

In the coming weeks, a local private company will launch the Maltese speech synthesiser. This text-to-speech software transforms electronic texts into spoken Maltese and is aimed, in particular, at people who have visual impairments and dyslexia. This will give them the opportunity to browse websites and other documents written in Maltese.

These are some of the latest developments. One cannot expect drastic changes over a short period of time. However, these advances are proof that the future of Maltese in technology is very promising.

When using technology, most of us prefer to use English. Is this a reflection of what language we use in our everyday life?

For many years the Maltese language was only spoken and hardly ever written. Its alphabet and orthography, for example, were officially recognised by the Maltese State only in 1934.

Interestingly enough there are people who in their everyday life speak to their colleagues in Maltese, but when they come to write or text them, they use English. This perhaps all boils down to mentality. Some might think that if they use Maltese in writing, they are not effective enough. This is surely not the case – I don’t see why we should not express ourselves in Maltese when writing or texting other Maltese colleagues.

The National Council for the Maltese Language works hard to increase awareness and foster a culture in which Maltese is more visible in public writings. We are glad to note, for instance, that the ATMs of the major local banks are bilingual. The same can be said for the public transport company which uses Maltese and English for its ticketing machines, adverts and signs.

Other large companies, such as those in the mobile telephony field, also use Maltese to promote their products on billboards and mobile marketing, thus proving that Maltese is effective in marketing. There is also a significant increase in websites, news portals and blogs in Maltese.

These are all positive signs.

Is the Maltese language seen as being too difficult to spell when sending e-mails or messaging?

Every language has its tricky words when it comes to spelling. Here again, the lack of technological resources is being felt in the use of Maltese. Several people tend to opt for English because they can make use of spell-checkers and T9 applications, thus avoiding embarrassment because of spelling errors. It is true that Maltese still lacks this vital technological tool, but we have good news in the pipeline.

There is also a misconception that text messaging is corrupting our language. This is not something restricted to the Maltese language. Text messages and social networks have increased writing around us, but often they have done away with the need to respect orthography and grammar as messages need to be economically short and instant.

However there are studies, like those by linguist David Crystal, which indicate that, although young students tend to shorten words and expressions in their school writings as they do in SMSs, they stop doing so as they grow older.

It is very important for us to make students aware that writing contexts differ. They can shorten Maltese, just like English, in SMSs but then they have to use standard Maltese in examinations and in other formal writings.

Just as we write ‘tnx’ in SMSs and ‘thanks’ in official writings in English, in Maltese we can use ‘grz’ in SMSs and ‘grazzi’ in official writings. Everything makes sense, given the right context.

You have recently launched the Multiling keyboard app – what is its main function?

This was the first development for Maltese in mobile technology. Owners of smartphones and tablets with the Google Android operating system can now text their SMSs and write their e-mails in Maltese characters. They can also use the integrated basic Maltese dictionary, similar to the English T9, for auto-correction and suggestions.

As a Council, we worked closely with the developer of the Multiling keyboard application to include the Mal­­tese language according to the standard Maltese keyboard. The app was tested before it was offered on Google Play.

Although the app is only available for Android-based devices, the Maltese Language Council is inviting programmers and developers for the Apple iOS and Blackberry operating system to join in the effort to provide support for the Maltese language on these popular devices too. The app must support Unicode, and needs to be integrated with the phone/tablet keyboard.

The Android app for Maltese is available free of charge from Google’s app market and from the Council’s website www.kunsilltalmalti.gov.mt.

What other initiatives are you working on to promote the use of the Maltese language in technology?

We have collaborated with the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority on two official standards: the Maltese Language Keyboard Layout (MSA 100:2002) and the Data and Information Requirements on Information and Communication Technology (MSA 200:2009).

The first one establishes the Unicode-based specification for keyboard allocation of graphic characters while the second standard establishes elements for data processing such as the alphabet, sorting rules for technological interfaces and the input and output format of numbers, dates and times.

Another successful initiative was organised by the technical committee of IT of our Council, led by Prof. Ray Fabri.

In November 2006, we had organised a conference entitled ‘Lejn Soċjetà Informatika Maltija’, which helped to create an awareness of the situation of the Maltese language in technology. This national conference was also fruitful as all stakeholders and people interested in this field came forward with their comments and suggestions. It also helped to establish new contacts.

We have also published two manuals to help users of Windows and Mac activate Maltese on their desktop computers and laptops through the language bar without downloading and installing Maltese fonts, which used to turn documents into strange symbols. We collaborated with the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) on this matter.

The activation of the Maltese keyboard now also forms part of the community courses offered by the MCA and other local IT companies in various localities.

We also collaborated with the Malta Information Technology Agency on the websites standard to promote more bilingual websites and e-gov services provided by government entities.

We encourage more government departments and authorities and more private companies to offer their electronic services in a bilingual option.

Currently we are working on a CD project which will make Maltese nursery rhymes more accessible for parents and teachers. These will also be available on Youtube.

We are using the latest means of communication like blogs and social media to answer frequently-asked questions related to the Maltese language from the general public and to disseminate resources related to Maltese to kindergarten, primary and secondary school teachers.

One can visit http://malti.skola.edu.mt for more information. We also have a Facebook page ‘Il-Malti u l-Informatika’.

Although Maltese is a small language, we are doing our utmost to create the same resources as other big languages and to continue to make our language appealing and accessible to all.

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