Thursday, January 3, 2019

Deep Learning Is Aiding Preservation of Endangered Languages

Linguists estimate that at least half of the world’s estimated 7,000 spoken languages will become extinct by the century’s end, due to forces ranging from globalization to cultural assimilation. Part of the challenge of documenting and revitalizing endangered languages is a lack of texts and speech recordings to work with. Seneca, a language of one of the six Iroquois Nations in North America, has only about 100 first-language speakers and several hundred more second-language learners.

Automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology is widely used to transcribe languages with millions or billions of speakers, like English and Mandarin. But it has only scratched the surface with languages like Seneca, which have vastly fewer speakers and significantly less data to work with. Now a team of researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, along with colleagues from the University at Buffalo, is tapping deep learning to bolster the ability of ASR. And while its focus is on Seneca, the project’s vision encompasses the preservation of languages globally as well as an important part of our shared cultural history.