New Language Engineering Programme for Italy
by Fedrico Flaviano
An important conference hosted in mid-January by the Italian Ministry for the Post and Telecommunications on 'Natural Language Processing in the Information Society' provided the platform for the launching of a proposal for a national language engineering programme.
The meeting was opened by the Minister, Antonio Maccanico, who outlined the main objectives of the Conference. In particular Professor Maccanico evidenced the threat currently being posed to national languages by the globalising effect of the information society and the predominant role played by the English language. He stressed the need to safeguard the communicative value of Italian by providing an adequate infrastructure for Italian linguistic resources.
Theoretical studies on written and spoken language, and practical applications such as speech recognition, speech transcription and voice synthesis, machine translation, computer-assisted language teaching, content-based information retrieval, document authoring, WWW applications, and so on, necessitate a number of different kinds of linguistic and lexical resources. On the threshold of the year 2000 and with the perspective of an increasingly powerful information society, the acquisition of such resources cannot be neglected without risking the decline of a language and with it of the related culture.
The importance of language processing technologies cannot be ignored. They make it possible to break down many of the existing barriers between the citizen and the information society. For example, they can be used to:
- provide facilities for the automatic translation into Italian of texts in other languages (eg downloaded from Internet)
- facilitate access and searching of information in large electronic archives, such as digital libraries
- set up distributed multimedia bureaux which, using speech recognition and voice synthesis techniques, can offer all kinds of information or commercial services through man/machine dialogues
- supply automatic information services through the telecommunications networks, such as railway timetable consultation, latest stock market prices, etc.
A proposal for a national programme for the development of language engineering (LE) technologies and linguistic resources was thus presented at the Conference. The main aim of the programme is to bring Italy into line with the other G7 countries by encouraging the development of research in natural language processing and, at the same time, to promote the merits of the Italian language and culture.
This proposal has been studied by a group of experts formed by representatives from the Ministry, from the academic and research communities, from professional associations for translators and interpreters and from language industries and services, coordinated by Antonio Zampolli, Director of the Institute for Computational Linguistics, CNR, Pisa.
The starting point was a survey of already existing Italian linguistic resources, and in particular those that have been created thanks to contributions from the European Union. These large collections of mono- and multilingual text and speech data banks, of computational grammars and lexicons1, and of software procedures form the necessary framework for the development of products and technologies for language engineering in Italy. A plan of activities for the further development of these resources and the creation of the necessary infrastructures was outlined.
The Conference provided an excellent forum for the discussion of this plan and, in particular, to stimulate the participation of the industrial and financial worlds in its activation. It also offered an impressive panorama of the intense interest of Italian industries, service providers and public authorities in the potential benefits of LE applications for many Italian industrial, commercial, social and cultural activities.
There was general consensus on the need to reduce the differences in terms of infrastructures between the linguistic resources available for Italian and for the other G7 languages. Not only Italy but the entire European community will benefit from efforts made to promote the Italian language; the valuable heritage provided by language and cultural differences in Europe will bring competitive advantages to the entire system in the global market place.
Federico Flaviano Ministero delle Poste delle Telecomunicazioni
Tel: +39 6 5958 2879