Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella And President Brad Smith On Keeping Languages Alive

By Amit Chowdhry ● November 28, 2019
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and president Brad Smith recently went to New Zealand for the Microsoft Envision Forum event and to oversee a language preservation project

In a recent blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith pointed out that there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken around the world. But every two weeks, a language dies with its last speaker and it is predicted that between 50% and 90% of endangered languages will disappear by the next century, according to BBC. And when a community loses a language, it loses a connection to the past and part of its present.

“It loses a piece of its identity. As we think about protecting this heritage and the importance of preserving language, we believe that new technology can help,” wrote Smith. “More than many nations, the people of New Zealand are acutely aware of this phenomenon. Centuries ago, the Māori people arrived on the islands to settle in and create a new civilization. Through the centuries and in the isolation of the South Pacific, the Māori developed their own unique culture and language.”

In New Zealand, 15% of the population is Māori. And only a quarter of the Māori people speak their native language and only 3% of all people living in New Zealand speak te reo Maori.

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New Zealand and its institutions took notice to this problem and it is actively taking steps to promote the use of te reo Māori in meaningful ways.

“More and more schools are teaching te reo Māori, and city councils are revitalizing the country’s indigenous culture by giving new, non-colonial names to sites around their cities. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promoted the learning of te reo Māori, calling for 1 million new speakers by 2040,” added Smith.

In a statement, Ardern said: “Māori language is a part of who we are.”

Over the last 14 years, Microsoft has been collaborating with te reo Māori experts and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) to integrate the te reo Māori language into the technology that thousands of Kiwis use every day with the goal of ensuring it remains a living language. And Microsoft’s collaboration has resulted in translations of Minecraft educational resources.

Plus Microsoft recently commissioned a game immersed entirely in the traditional Māori world, Ngā Motu (The Islands). And Microsoft announced the inclusion of te reo Māori as a language officially recognized in our free Microsoft Translator app.

Microsoft Translator now supports over 60 languages and this means that the free application can translate te reo Māori text into English text and vice versa. And it will also support Māori into and from all other languages supported by Microsoft Translator.

“The language we speak is the heart of our culture. The development of this Māori language tool would not have been possible without many people working towards a common goal over many years. We hope our work doesn’t simply help revitalize and normalize te reo Māori for future generations of New Zealanders, but enables it to be shared, learned and valued around the world. It’s very important for me that the technology we use reflects and reinforces our cultural heritage, and language is the heart of that,” commented Dr. Te Taka Keegan, a senior lecturer of computer science at the University of Waikato and one of the local experts who helped guide the project from its inception.

Te reo Māori is going to employ Microsoft’s Neural Machine Translation (NMT) techniques — which can be more accurate than statistical translation models. And Microsoft recently achieved human parity in translating news from Chinese to English. The advanced machine learning used for te reo Māori will continue to become better and better as even more documents are used to “teach” it every nuance of the language. Plus this technology will be utilized across Microsoft’s M365 products and services.

As part of Microsoft’s AI for Cultural Heritage program, the company committed $10 million over 5 years to support projects that are dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of cultural heritage that leverage the power of artificial intelligence.

“The ultimate role of technology is to serve humankind, not to replace it. We can harness the latest tools in ways that support an environment rich in diversity, perspectives, and learnings from the past. And when we enable that knowledge and experience to be shared with the rest of the world, every society benefits,” explained Smith.

Here is a video that Microsoft put together about this project:

Smith and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella visited New Zealand to oversee the rollout of this project.

“Fantastic to be in New Zealand today, meeting with so many incredible innovators, including those who are applying technology to help keep the Māori language alive,” said Nadella in a tweet.

Nadella and Smith were also in New Zealand for the Microsoft Envision Forum event in Auckland. At the event, Nadella said that the company is on a mission to help every person and every organization in New Zealand to build their own technology “with intensity” and to have a “broad impact on society and the economy.” This is Nadella’s second visit to New Zealand since he became CEO in 2014 reported CIO.

“Our mission is ultimately to build world-class technology, bring it into New Zealand, see and celebrate how you build your own world-class technology around it,” concluded Nadella at the event via CIO.