As the number of languages spoken worldwide has declined over the last hundred years, one of the culprits has been technology, especially mass media like television.
The Internet, though dominated by English, may help change that. The Web was used to preserve an aboriginal dialect in Australia. Technology made it possible to text and type on a computer in N’Ko, a written language used in West Africa. Now an online translator may help preserve a small but ancient dialect, Hmong, which along with Mong is one of two major dialects of a group of people originally from parts of China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Though countryless, the Hmong have always had their language to keep them together.
But the quarter million or so Hmong living in the U.S. say today’s children are not learning the language.
“When (Hmong) kids are at home, instead of spending time with their parents and speaking in Hmong, they use the Internet and talk to their friends on Facebook. And it’s all in English,” Phong Yang, who teaches Hmong at Cal-State Fullerton, told the Associated Press.
Members of the Hmong community helped create a machine language translator. Using new tools developed by Microsoft to aid in automatic translation for languages it did not currently support, they built up a translation engine. Hmong is now one of the 38 languages supported by Microsoft’s Bing Translator; a Mong translator is still under development.
Success with Hmong may lead to other, less common languages getting machine translation versions. There may be as many as 7,000 languages spoken today across the world, though thousands of them may be endangered.
They are new tools Chue Her, a Hmong elder, is grateful for. He told KSEE24News that the translator was a “Big help. It will help the younger generation, help the elders.”
Here’s KSEE’s report on the language translator: