Preserving cultural heritage one language at a time

 |   Brad Smith - President

Owairea, 10, using the Microsoft Translator for the Māori language

There are close to 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. Yet, sadly, every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, and it is predicted that between 50% and 90% of endangered languages will disappear by next century. When a community loses a language, it loses its connection to the past – and part of its present. It loses a piece of its identity. As we think about protecting this heritage and the importance of preserving language, we believe that new technology can help.

More than many nations, the people of New Zealand are acutely aware of this phenomenon. Centuries ago, the Māori people arrived on the islands to settle in and create a new civilization. Through the centuries and in the isolation of the South Pacific, the Māori developed their own unique culture and language. Today, in New Zealand, 15% of the population is Māori yet only a quarter of the Māori people speak their native language, and only 3% of all people living in New Zealand speak te reo Maori. Statistically, fluency in the language is extremely low.

New Zealand and its institutions have taken notice and are actively taking steps to promote the use of te reo Māori in meaningful ways. More and more schools are teaching te reo Māori, and city councils are revitalizing the country’s indigenous culture by giving new, non-colonial names to sites around their cities. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promoted the learning of te reo Māori, calling for 1 million new speakers by 2040.  In a simple, yet profound, statement Ardern said, “Māori language is a part of who we are.” Despite all these efforts, today the fluency in te reo Māori is low.

For the past 14 years, Microsoft has been collaborating with te reo Māori experts and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) to weave te reo Māori into the technology that thousands of Kiwis use every day with the goal of ensuring it remains a living language with a strong future. Our collaboration has already resulted in translations of Minecraft educational resources and we recently commissioned a game immersed entirely in the traditional Māori world, Ngā Motu (The Islands).

To focus only on shaping the future ignores the value of the past, as well as our responsibility to preserve and celebrate te reo Māori heritage. This is why we are proud to announce the inclusion of te reo Māori as a language officially recognized in our free Microsoft Translator app. Microsoft Translator supports more than 60 languages, and this means that the free application can translate te reo Māori text into English text and vice versa. It will also support Māori into and from all other languages supported by Microsoft Translator. This is really all about breaking the language barrier at home, at work, anywhere you need it.

Dr. Te Taka Keegan, senior lecturer of computer science at the University of Waikato and one of the many local experts who have helped guide the project from its inception, says: “The language we speak is the heart of our culture. The development of this Māori language tool would not have been possible without many people working towards a common goal over many years. We hope our work doesn’t simply help revitalize and normalize te reo Māori for future generations of New Zealanders, but enables it to be shared, learned and valued around the world. It’s very important for me that the technology we use reflects and reinforces our cultural heritage, and language is the heart of that.”

Te reo Māori will employ Microsoft’s Neural Machine Translation (NMT) techniques, which can be more accurate than statistical translation models. We recently achieved human parity in translating news from Chinese to English, and the advanced machine learning used for te reo Māori will continue to become better and better as even more documents are used to “teach” it every nuance of the language. This technology will be leveraged across all our M365 products and services.

But while the technology is exciting, it’s not the heart of this story. This is about collaborating to develop the tools that boost our collective well-being. New Zealand’s government is also spearheading a “well-being” framework for measuring a nation’s progress in ways that don’t solely reflect economic growth. We need to look at cultural heritage the same way. Preserving our cultural heritage isn’t just a “nice thing to do” – according to the U.N., it’s vital to our resilience, social cohesion and sense of belonging, celebrating the values and stories we have in common.

I was fortunate to visit New Zealand this year, and it is a country that is genuinely working to achieve a delicate cultural balance, one that keeps in mind growth as well as guardianship, which maintains innovation and a future focus whilst preserving a deep reverence for its past. This kind of balance is something all nations should be striving for.

Globally, as part of our AI for Cultural Heritage program, Microsoft has committed $10 million over five years to support projects dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of cultural heritage that leverage the power of artificial intelligence. The ultimate role of technology is to serve humankind, not to replace it. We can harness the latest tools in ways that support an environment rich in diversity, perspectives and learnings from the past. And when we enable that knowledge and experience to be shared with the rest of the world, every society benefits.

For more information on Microsoft Translator please visit: https://www.microsoft.com/translator

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