Microsoft Leverages Tech to Preserve Languages at Risk of Disappearing

The software giant hopes to make lost languages a thing of the past with software that helps them maintain their relevancy in the modern age.

Microsoft Translator

Language, culture and heritage are often inextricably linked. Microsoft is working to ensure that cultural fabric of some populations aren't pulled apart because today's software solutions don't speak their language.

Celebrating UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, which took place on Feb. 21, the Redmond, Wash.-based company is showing off its progress in making technology more accessible to users who may not speak a major language or have a way in which to keep their language alive.

"Microsoft Translator is releasing Yucatec Maya and Querétaro Otomi in an ongoing effort to further language preservation," said Scott Charney, corporate vice president of Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, in a Feb. 23 announcement. "The automatic translation systems for Mayan and Otomi were built using the Microsoft Translator Hub, a Translator product available free of cost to allow organizations to create their own unique translation systems."

Microsoft has been working to expand its translation services to help both businesses and consumers break down the barriers of communication. In December, the company released a preview of Skype Translator (English and Spanish), months after first wowing the industry with an early demonstration of the real-time text and spoken translation service.

In today's connected world, "being multilingual, or knowing more than one language, increases our overall readiness to relate and to communicate cross-culturally," said Charney. "Since the ability to speak a language also gives us insight into a culture and a broader world view, language learning gives us more understanding than we get from simply having a translator present or learning a common diplomatic language."

The company's ambitious Windows 10 operating system (OS), which is set to officially launch later this year, will also work better with the world's wealth of languages—more than 7,000 living languages in fact, according to Charney. "Microsoft is releasing the Universal Shaping Engine (USE), a groundbreaking script-rendering technology that allows Windows 10 to correctly display of all of the world's writing systems," he said.

"A shaping engine is used for so-called complex text layout, which is needed for about half of the world’s writing systems," explained Andrew Glass, program manager of Microsoft's Operating Systems Group, in a separate blog post. By the time Windows 8.1 came around, the company had developed shaping engines that covered 27 of the most popular writing systems, Glass said. "But if your script wasn't one of these 27, you were out of luck."

Working with the Unicode Technical Committee and consulting with OpenType font experts, a small team of Microsoft engineers came up with a specification that encompasses all languages. "By publishing the technical details for the Universal Shaping Engine we enable font developers to understand how to create fonts for the world's complex scripts so that they will display correctly on Windows 10,” Glass said in the post.

Last year, the company localized Office Online into Cherokee, helping younger tribal members access their language and collaborate in modern ways. "It was localized into Cherokee in a collaboration between the Microsoft Local Language Program, the Microsoft Office division and the Cherokee Nation's Language Program," and continues to be updated as new features are added, Alfred Hellstern, senior international project manager at Microsoft, said in a statement.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...