April 6, 2012

Hmong: Online Language Translator Now Available

The Hmong language can now be translated into English using a new online translator launched by Microsoft as part of its project to translate some lesser-known languages.



Below is an article published by Voice of America News:

Almost every day, Chue Her sits down at his computer, pulls out his Hmong-English dictionary and starts typing 10 to 20 words into an online translator. He hopes his contribution to Microsoft's translation project will be the key to reviving the Hmong language that he worries is disappearing.

“I believe if we don't have the translation to keep in the computer like this, in the future, I believe 100 percent, the Hmong language will be gone. It will die out,” he said.

This 65-year-old spoke Hmong in his native Laos, but when he moved to Fresno, California in 1982 and began a family, the preferred language for his four children and 11 grandchildren began shifting.

“I am very worried right now my grandchildren do not speak Hmong,” he said. “So, I think it's a good opportunity for me to help my kids to learn.”

The Hmong are a minority tribal people native to the mountains of southern China and Southeast Asia. They sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, and many ended up fleeing from the Vietnam-Laos border to the United States in the 1970s. Today, about 260,000 live in the U.S.

Project coordinator Phong Yang says the Hmong language has begun to disappear as more and more generations of Hmong are born and raised abroad.

“Second generation Hmong children don't learn Hmong as much anymore or don't speak Hmong as well anymore,” said Yang, who teaches the language at California State University, Fresno. “We really want to find a way to come up with some sort of interactive tool and definitely make Hmong more visible to the public, even to speakers so they could be proud of their language.”

When Microsoft approached Yang last year about making Hmong the 38th language in its online translator, he knew he needed to act on the project.

“We still have resources at this point for translation, but I would say within the next 15, 20 years, I mean, who knows what happens?” said Yang, who even admits his Hmong is not perfect.

By resources, he means the older generations of Hmong, like Her, who fluently speak, read and write the language.

It is now an all-out, community effort to build this online tool. In order to expand the program's vocabulary, the native speakers must type in words, phrases and documents in Hmong and then provide the English translation.

Microsoft Research's Will Lewis said the program uses a statistical model to translate based on the words entered into the program. Hmong is one of the first of the lesser-known languages Microsoft is rolling out as part of its translation project.

“Hmong for a variety of reasons kind of percolated up to the top because there was a strong involvement from the community,” Lewis explained.

Yang says the community volunteers have loaded about 40,000 words into the program — a good start for what is likely to be a long process.

For volunteer Her, the time and energy is worth it. He is worried not just about the Hmong language, but about a fading culture and way of life. With a little help from technology, he hopes his history will be a part of his children's future.