Opening virtual doors across the language barrier

Posted by Anthony Salcito 
Vice President, Worldwide Education

For those of us in countries where the world’s most common languages are spoken, it would be easy to assume that no more than a few hundred languages are in use today.   Yet according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), between 6,000 and 7,000 languages are actively spoken in different parts of the globe.  Those surprising figures reflect the rich social and cultural diversity that persists in our increasingly globalized world. 

Unfortunately, UNESCO forecasts as many as half of the languages spoken today could be extinct by the end of this century. At Microsoft, we do not want to see that happen.  That is why, through our Local Language Program, we are committed to supporting our software in as many languages as possible.   We want to help stem the tide of language loss by bringing new languages across the digital divide and preserving their relevance in the 21st century. 

As part of UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, we areannouncing the list of languages we will support for new releases of Windows, Office and, for the first time, Visual Studio. We believe it is important to preserve local languages and cultural identities, and we are proud more than 1 billion people speak the languages supported by the program.

Dr. K. David Harrison is an expert on endangered languages at Swarthmore College and director of research at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.  Harrison believes language revitalization will be one of the most important trends in linguistics over the next couple of decades, and he believes companies need to get on board.

“Language endangerment begins with children,” Harrison says.  “The Microsoft Local Language Program can empower indigenous communities from the very moment when children in those communities first encounter a technology.   It is a powerful thing for children to see their native language on a computer or on cell phone in a high tech medium. It validates the language and encourages them not to abandon the language. It shows them that their language is neither backwards nor obsolete and that it has use in the modern world and has value.”

 

Opening  technology to people who have been closed off by language barriers can create tremendous new opportunities.  Enabling people to acquire technology skills can enhance their employability and economic opportunities. It can also have powerful ripple effects, enabling a person to share their learnings and help not only themselves but their entire community.  We’ve seen this happen in countries as remote as Nepal, as well as in countries as advanced as the U.K.  By connecting people with the power of technology, you create opportunity. 

Since we launched the Local Language Program five years ago, many users have developed their own local solutions on top of our software, including local language spell-checkers,  translation dictionaries, screen savers, collaboration tools, online services and supplemental help materials. 

Technology, and the potential barriers to technology, shouldn’t diminish the richness of languages around the world.   Instead, technology should help sustain languages and cultures. 

For 1 billion people whose mother tongues are supported by our Local Language Program, they don’t have to choose between their heritage and access to technology.  We look forward to increasing that number as we expand the program and break down more language barriers to technology.

In addition to occasional contributions to Microsoft on the Issues, Anthony Salcito posts regularly to hisEducation Insights blog.

 

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