Motorola Creates A Blueprint To Support Endangered Languages In Smartphones
In March 2021, Motorola announced that it added support for two indigenous languages spoken in Latin America as part of a more significant push to make its products more inclusive and accessible. Any Motorola phone running Android 11 can now access Kaingang and Nheengatu. The Kaingang language comes from an agricultural community of people in southeastern Brazil, and only about half of the community still speaks it. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designatedKaingang as "definitely endangered." This means that children no longer learn it as their first language at home. The Nheengatu community counts about 20,000 people who live primarily in the Amazon. Yet only about 6,000 people in the region still speak the language making Nheengatu a "severely endangered" language by UNESCO's classification. This means that Nheengatu is one step away (critically endangered) from being considered "extinct." UNESCO classifies a language as "severely endangered" when grandparents and older generations speak it; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves. Both these communities heavily rely on mobile phones for all their internet access needs.
Smartphones have certainly helped create new languages. From text messaging to emojis, our vocabulary has grown and evolved over the past few years, for better or worse. In this sense, technology shapes our languages, making them adapt to new ways of communicating. I was fascinated by the work that Motorola did because it turned this trend on its head. In collaboration with the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, and Professor Wilmar D'Angelis, a researcher in cultural anthropology and indigenous languages, Motorola worked on bringing ancient languages to the modern age. At the same time, it added new words to their vocabulary to describe the contemporary world while adding new UI experiences to accommodate words and letters that did not exist.
I had the opportunity to talk to Renata Altenfelder, Executive Director, Global Brand Management Lenovo Mobile Business Group (MBG) and Juliana Rebelatto, Globalization Manager and Lenovo MBG Head Linguist and get some more details on how the project was born and what it took to deliver on it.
Altenfelder proudly told me that the idea for the project came from the linguistic team at Motorola. They were the ones who discovered the initial gap and started investigating the language map of the world. They found the languages that were already extinct and those close to their home in Brazil that were endangered and they proposed adding them to the list of the supported languages to management. "It was clear to us that this was not just about saving a language, it was about preserving culture, history, heritage. By bringing these languages onto smartphones, we are able to give younger generations a reason to keep them alive," told me Altenfelder.
Motorola's linguistics team worked with native language speakers of both languages throughout the project, which meant training them on the company's tools and practices. "The people we worked with were linguists and translators, but they never worked with technology. They never created software. This meant that they had to learn new workflows. In the process, they acquired new skills, which will be useful in their profession in the future," adds Rebelatto. For Motorola, it is essential to use local linguists and translators for every language its products support, but it was even more critical for this project. "It was about making sure we did not speak for the locals, that we did not try and interpret their culture while making decisions for them on their language. I cannot begin to tell you how rewarding it was to see the pride on their faces when they saw their language on the phone for the first time," emphasizes Rebelatto.
All the work was done during the pandemic, which created its own unique set of challenges. The team's most significant technical challenge was that Android has English as its source language. This meant that the team had to first localize it from English to Portuguese and then from Portuguese to the two indigenous languages. From a linguistic perspective, the biggest challenge was to find words that would fit the User Interface (UI). Rebelatto explains: "throughout the UI, we use the word "thank you," but these languages did not have a word for thank you as in their culture, this concept of thanking people using a word doesn't exist. So they had to come up with a way of saying thank you that could be understood across the regions."
A lot of time went into selecting words that were either understood by most people or did not display a regional preference but instead remained neutral. One of the translators, Yaguarê Yamã (Ozias Glória de Oliveira), explained over email: "The main difficulty was to unite the variants of the language. When we speak of Nheengatu, we do not speak of a language spoken only in one community. We have several dialects. The project brought three speakers from different communities and made us try to unite our language, using as a base the root of Nheengathu."
Motorola wants to inspire other companies and their globalization teams to consider other languages as there are so many endangered languages. The team is working with Google to open-source the language content as well as working with the Unicode Consortium to share all the language specifics that were captured and documented. Motorola also shared the Yanga keyboard with Google to be selected natively rather than through third-party apps.
In an email interview, professor D'Angelis shared this about the project: "The victories, for me, were many, starting with the fact that this project placed the inclusion of indigenous languages on the agenda of Information and Communication Technologies. We can no longer ignore the existence of hundreds of languages in the Americas, in a world in which awareness of the value of all forms of diversity (from biological to cultural) is increasingly strengthened. But there are other equally important victories, such as the recognition and remuneration of indigenous translators, at a professional level compatible with those of Brazilian translators of foreign languages."
While it is impossible to estimate the total number of languages that have already disappeared, linguists have calculated that 115 languages have been lost in the last five centuries in the US alone. As tech strives to be more inclusive, I hope we will see ecosystem and OS owners like Google pick up the work initiated by Motorola and help take it to the next level so that this success can be replicated in other parts of the world.