Microsoft and Canadian government partner to create MT for indigenous languages


Microsoft recently announced the addition of two indigenous Canadian languages to its machine translation (MT) system.

As of Feb. 1, Microsoft Translator now offers Inuinnaqtun and a romanized version of Inuktitut, which were developed with the support of the government of Nunavut, Canada, and other community groups. After the company’s MT system crossed the 100-language milestone in Oct. 2021, Microsoft noted that it has been emphasizing the development and improvement of MT for endangered and indigenous languages to promote language preservation efforts.

“By adding Inuinnaqtun and Romanized Inuktitut we further our commitment to break the language barrier,” the company wrote in a blog post on Feb. 1. “This includes working with language communities throughout the world to ensure endangered languages are preserved.”

Inuktitut, which is the most widely known and spoken dialect of the Inuktut language (which Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun collectively make up), was first added to Microsoft Translator in Jan. 2021. When it was first added to the platform, Microsoft Translator could only translate it using the native Inuktitut syllabary system. But in the most recent update to the MT system, users can translate Inuktitut using the Latin script, expanding the language’s reach to individuals who may not be literate in the traditional script.

“Sadly, every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. It is predicted that between 50% and 90% of endangered languages will disappear by next century,” the company wrote. “The Government of Nunavut, Canada, has worked proactively with Microsoft Translator and community groups such as the Kitikmeot Heritage Society to ensure that Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut are not among them.”

Inuktitut is spoken by roughly 40,000 speakers throughout Canada, while Inuinnaqtun is spoken by just over 1,000. In light of the United Nations Decade of International Languages, which was kickstarted at the start of this year, some language activists in Canada have been calling on the country to adopt Inuktitut as one of its official languages and also do more to work toward preserving the language.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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