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Maltese is at risk of ‘digital extinction’

Just 6.5% type in Maltese online

The Maltese language risks disappearing online due to a lack of technological support, a study by Europe’s leading language technology experts has found.

Out of all European languages, Maltese, Icelandic, Latvian and Lithuanian are at the highest risk of “digital extinction”.

The report by Meta-Net, a European network dedicated to building the technological foundations of a multilingual information society, found that Maltese had “weak or no support” in all four categories of technological support studied.

The four categories were machine translation, speech processing, text analysis and speech and text resources.

Icelandic, Latvian and Lithuanian, which have relatively few native speakers, were also ranked as having “weak or no support” in all categories.

Twenty-one of 30 languages (70 per cent) were placed in the lowest category for at least one area by the experts.

“The results of our study are most alarming. The majority of European languages are severely under-resourced and some are almost completely neglected. In this sense, many of our languages are not yet future-proof,” Hans Uszkoreit, coordinator of Meta-Net said.

The field of language technology produces software that can process spoken or written human language.

Well-known examples include spelling and grammar checkers, automatic translation systems and web search engines.

But there are significant gaps in technology due to the English-language focus of most research and development, a lack of commitment and financial resources and also a lack of a clear research and technology vision, according to the report.

It concluded that a coordinated, large-scale effort had to be made in Europe to create the missing technologies and transfer this technology to the languages faced with digital extinction.

The report, which formed part of the Meta-Net White Paper series, was released on the European Day of Languages last week.

The paucity of Maltese language content online was demonstrated in a Eurobarometer survey published last May, which showed that just 6.5 per cent of Maltese internet users chose to browse, read and communicate in Maltese online.

Ninety-one per cent used English instead.

Reacting to the report online, President George Abela said: “Today, Maltese is more alive than ever before and will again adapt itself, this time in response to the technological developments of the present.”

Meta-Net consists of 60 research centres in 34 countries, including the University of Malta’s Department of Intelligent Computer Systems and Institute of Linguistics, which are at the forefront of efforts to improve Maltese language technology.

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