Tech helps boost Irish language use

The use of Irish, the language natively spoken in Ireland, has slowly been in decline for centuries in part due to former British rulers who forbade its use. But one Irish institution is using technology to ensure that the language stays alive.

Foras na Gaeilge, a government body that promotes the use of Irish, is interested in technology that can help Irish people use the language throughout the day. One of the latest initiatives from the institution is to encourage mobile phone operators to enable text messaging in Irish. Foras na Gaeilge is currently in talks with Vodafone Ireland in an attempt to create an application that would support texting in the language.

Vodafone Ireland is interested in enabling the technology, but discussions between the two organizations are preliminary, said a Vodafone Ireland spokeswoman. Potential services could include displaying menu items on phones in Irish and Irish language predictive texting, the technology that suggests completed words to texters after they've inputted just a couple letters, she said.

Some computer users can already work in Irish. That's because Foras na Gaeilge collaborated with Microsoft last year to build an Irish version of Windows XP and Office 2003. That project was initiated by Microsoft, which has its European headquarters in Ireland and approached Foras with the idea when it was embarking on a worldwide project to create overlays for Microsoft products in different languages, said Brendan Mac Craith, a spokesman for Foras na Gaeilge. His organization uses the software.

The process of building the Irish version began with Microsoft giving Foras a glossary of 60,000 words that need to exist in Irish in order to create the software. Some terms didn't have Irish equivalents so a division within Foras, which has a mission of literally making up new words in the language, set out to create Irish words for the technology terms. The linguists go about coming up with the new words by deconstructing them to their Latin roots and then rebuilding them again in Irish, Mac Craith said.

Foras also worked closely with Sony Computer Entertainment last year to create a PlayStation game for Gaelic sports, games like hurling and Gaelic football that are played in Ireland. Users have the option to play the video game in Irish or English.

"We're managing to deliver every day tools so as children who are coming home from school and are using PlayStation, they're able to use the Irish language outside of the school room context and give them the opportunity to use the latest technology," he said. Students in Ireland are required to study the Irish language for at least 12 years and some schools conduct all classes exclusively in Irish.

Google also offers an Irish version of its site (it can be found by visiting www.google.ie and clicking on "Google.ie offered in: Gaeilge"), although the language support is minimal.

Foras is also in the process of redesigning its own Web site and some of the new features will include a database of Irish phrases that visitors can click on to hear the pronunciation of words. The new site will also more prominently feature a community tool that lets people share information about events that may be happening in the Irish-speaking community.

For businesses, Foras offers to help companies become bilingual, including funding and support for creating bilingual Web sites.

Foras is also involved in the development of a Web site, currently in beta form, that includes a database of 200,000 Irish words. The site functions like a dictionary so users can enter a word in English and ask for its Irish translation and vice versa.

Foras isn't alone in encouraging the use of the Irish language. Government-funded television and radio stations broadcast in Irish and some publications are produced in the language. Irish recently was accepted as an official language of the European Union and in 2004 new road signs in certain regions in the West were hung displaying only Irish names of towns. Most road signs in other parts of the country include both the Irish and English versions of names.

Putting a number on how many people speak Irish day-to-day is a controversial subject, in part because census forms typically lump together people who speak it always with students who may use Irish in the classroom but nowhere else. People who use the language naturally, at home and throughout the day, probably number above 50,000. They're an active group, involved with the many initiatives around the country to help keep the language alive.

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