Online Maltese needs help to survive, say lecturers

Online Maltese needs help to survive, say lecturers

Many languages have a strong presence online but Maltese is facing internet extinction unless there is more investment.

Many languages have a strong presence online but Maltese is facing internet extinction unless there is more investment.

You may Google, Facebook and tweet in English rather than Maltese but linguistic experts are confident Malta’s mother tongue can survive online – if more investment is made in developing language technology.

The report’s a very useful warning but it’s in no way a death knell

A recent report found that Maltese was one of four European languages most at risk of disappearing online due to lack of digital support, such as spelling and grammar checkers, automatic translation systems and web search engines.

“The report’s a very useful warning but it’s in no way a death knell,” said Albert Gatt, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Malta.

The study by Meta-Net, a European network dedicated to building the technological foundations of a multilingual information society, concluded that a 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”.

Dr Gatt pointed out that efforts were already under way to develop or transfer the language techno­logies needed to make Maltese prosper online. He mentioned the University’s online text corpus of over 100 million words, all in Maltese, which programmers and linguists could use to develop software that uses Maltese correctly.

This was part of the Maltese Language Resource Server (MLRS) project, which has also developed a tool that automatically categorises and labels units in the corpus, such as nouns and verbs. Plans are in the pipeline to have other tools, including a spellchecker.

The University and Kunsill tal-Malti are also running a joint project to update the Aquilina Maltese/ English dictionary and make it available online.

Ray Fabri and Mike Rosner, from the Institute of Linguistics and the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems respectively, said progress in Maltese language technology was slow because there were only a few local experts, with only one of them employed full-time on the projects. They hoped that the new B.Sc. course in human language technology would help to rectify the problem.

Another problem is lack of funding. “There is need for vision and policy at national level explicitly recognising the key role of language technology for the future of the language,” Prof. Fabri and Mr Rosner, who are both at the forefront of the MLRS project, said.

They rejected the notion that Maltese grammar and orthography were unnecessarily complex for use online, describing this as a “typical linguistic myth resulting from a narrow, ‘folkloristic’ approach to the study of language”.

Maltese speakers tended to prefer to write in English because written English had a privileged socio-economical status and because of intensive exposure to written English, they said.

Prof. Fabri and Mr Rosner said the prevalence of written English online was a threat to Maltese “to an extent if it is not countered by immediate action”.

“This is exactly why we need to seriously invest, much more intensively than has been the case so far, in the development of resources and tools for Maltese.”

Manwel Mifsud, president of Kunsill tal-Malti said: “Maltese is very much alive. It’s just that it’s alive within a very small environment.

“Fifty years ago, a famous Maltese language expert predicted that all local dialects would be gone within a decade. We can try and predict the future of a language but we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re wide of the mark.”

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