XTM Advent Calendar Day Eleven – Finding Your Feet

XTM Advent Calendar Day Eleven – Finding Your Feet

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17 landed on the moon. It was the final lunar mission of the Apollo program and it signalled the end of a chapter in human exploration. Astronauts had previously been test pilots and veterans of armed combat. Mission commander Gene Cernan fitted that profile, but lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt was a geologist. Schmitt’s interest in the ground beneath his feet – wherever he happened to be standing – was something to be admired. Here on earth, when soil becomes unhealthy or unstable, the life cycle stops. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, over 80% of people depend on the land for survival, but two-thirds of the continent’s farmable land is degraded and has lost productive capacity.

It’s easy to take the ground we stand on for granted, and tell ourselves that what we plant in it will grow. But projections of economic growth in Africa are undermined by concerns that the foundations are literally in danger of disintegrating. And concerns for the continent’s cultural identity are equally widespread. While there are half a billion mobile phone users in sub-Saharan countries alone, the native languages of many of those users are under threat of extinction, with over 200 African languages classed as endangered by UNESCO.

A lack of scientific terms, for example, translated into African languages has notable consequences in education. In South Africa, less than 10% of people speak English at home, but it’s the main teaching language in schools. If this discourages children from studying science and maths-based disciplines, then the chances of South Africa producing the next Harrison Schmitt will be slim.

Kathleen Siminyu, a specialist in machine learning and natural language processing for African languages, believes African languages and African students are in danger of being left behind. And a shortage of human linguists with the skills to cover the continent’s 2,000 or so languages doesn’t help matters.

What’s the point of farmable land where nothing grows?

What’s the point of communications technology where the language is extinct?

Soil conservation is increasingly recognized as an important part of the climate change debate, and language technology has emerged as the key to preserving our culture. 2021 saw the number of language pairs covered across machine translation engines rise from 16,000 to 99,760. Many of these languages are under-resourced, and the potential impact for African languages is huge. Dr Herman Kamper of Stellenbosch University sees the big picture:

“If we had a perfect Machine Translation system you can take the whole Wikipedia and translate that into someone’s language, then you give them direct access to basically all of knowledge. That’s a little bit amazing”

When the ground beneath us is unstable, we need to enrich it and invest in it. Almost half a century ago, Harrison Schmitt became the last person to set foot on the surface of the moon, and Gene Cernan became the last person to step off it. Curiosity and scientific excellence took us on that journey, and today those same qualities are taking us on a daily journey into the preservation of language and culture. In 2021 language technology has helped speakers of tens of thousands of languages to find their feet. At XTM we’re proud to play our part.