Voice recognition project offers big opportunity to Welsh language
The single most important project for the future of the Welsh language is – quietly – up and running at Bangor University, working with Meddal.com.
Whether it succeeds or not, though, is entirely in the hands of ordinary Welsh speakers.
It’s all about voice.
Voice is rapidly becoming one of the most important ways in which we use the internet – and its importance is only going to increase.
Huge steps forward have been taken in the last 5 years or so – voice recognition has improved a startling amount, and now it’s being built into an increasing number of mass market devices. We’re close to a tipping point, when voice will become an ordinary, daily part of using the internet.
The tipping point will come – because when speech recognition is fast and reliable enough, it is dramatically faster than typing. Everybody can speak faster than they can type, and voice interaction can work without even reaching out to open a laptop.
Easier and faster will always win.
But there’s a big problem with this for Welsh.
So far, the only path into this new interface is English.
If that remains the case, then there are children being born today who will grow up as Welsh speakers who know that only English is good enough for all the normal things their friends at school are doing every day.
In other words, they will be Welsh speakers with an inbuilt, unshakeable sense that their language is inferior – and as the success of the ‘Welsh Not’ showed, a deeply-held societal belief that your language is inferior can very quickly become an extinction event.
But Canolfan Bedwyr and Meddal.com have built an escape shuttle for us.
They’ve persuaded Mozilla (one of the largest not-for-profit organisations in the world, responsible for the Firefox browser) to offer Welsh as an option as a part of their ‘Common Voice’ project – which is Mozilla’s attempt to make speech recognition tech available to everyone.
It’s a revolutionary success.
All that needs to happen now is for Welsh speakers (and Welsh learners) to contribute their voices – and then Welsh will be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with English in this new world.
We’ll be able to use Welsh to talk to Google or Siri or Echo, to talk to our cars, to do large amounts of our work (wherever it happens to be) – with no need to fight or struggle or complain.
It will just be normal – and our children will have an unshakeable sense that their language is as valuable as any other.
And it’s more than just using the internet – it will make it possible to produce more Welsh than has ever existed before.
Songs and radio and conversations and presentations will all be able to have immediate, automatic transcripts – and that will lead to more successful automatic translation (helping human translators work faster), to better provision for learners, to deeper and wealthier layers of experience around everything we do.
And it works the other way around, too – anything written in Welsh will be available automatically for people to listen to – which will mean a new generation of listeners (and then readers as well) for Welsh books and stories and articles, tools to help learners practise and develop confidence, new ways to interact in Welsh with businesses and in public spaces – the possibilities are effectively endless.
It can be, in short, a new layer for Welsh – a new way to let Welsh speakers lead their lives naturally in Welsh, while at the same time enriching those lives.
But it won’t happen unless ordinary Welsh speakers make it happen.
Common Voice is dependent on voice recordings.
Anyone can make them – anywhere.
Here’s how you can help – whether you speak Welsh or not.
– if you do speak Welsh, give 2 minutes a day to recording your voice (anonymously) and checking other people’s recordings: https://voice.mozilla.org/cy
– encourage other people to do the same – tweet about it, tell your friends, help make sure that enough Welsh speakers understand that there is a new layer of life on the way which we can make naturally Welsh
– encourage Welsh organisations to support this project. At SaySomethinginWelsh, we’ve asked our staff to contribute 2 minutes a day, on work time – you could ask the organisation you work for (or any other organisation) to do the same. If even half a dozen large Welsh organisations did this, we’d be nailed on for victory.
Because those 2 minutes – contributed every day, by thousands of us – is all that is needed for Welsh to be an utterly normal part of this fast-moving part of our future.
There are 372 people contributing their voices already – making Welsh 8th on the list of languages in Common Voice.
But we can do much better than that – and we need to.
We’re not dependent on anyone else to make this happen. We don’t have to go cap in hand to the Assembly, or to Westminster. We don’t have to try to persuade anyone to take pity on us. We don’t have to complain or protest or lobby or argue.
We just have to do it.
Aran Jones is CEO of SaySomethinginWelsh