Outer Hebrides at sunset with castle

Alexa, a bheil Gàidhlig agad? Gaelic voice assistant in the works

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh are aiming to develop a Gaelic-speaking voice assistant, having used AI tools to convert the language from audio recordings to text.

The AI-based software takes an input of spoken Gaelic and then prints it as text. It was developed by a team of linguists and AI specialists at the university. Next, the researchers hope to step up the game and produce a Gaelic version of voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, which use the spoken word for input and output.

The researchers fed a neural network with millions of clips of spoken and written words in Gaelic, training it to recognise the relationship between spoken and written Gaelic.

The project goes back to the 1990s, when Dr William Lamb was working on a PhD in grammatical variation in Gaelic and constructed the first linguistically annotated corpus of Scottish Gaelic. This involved annotating 80,000 words by hand. Returning to the University of Edinburgh many years later, he revisited his work and used it to develop a website which provides tools to analyse words and structures in Gaelic sentences.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Lamb – who is now based at Edinburgh’s school of literatures, languages and cultures – commented: “Ensuring that Gaelic has a place in the modern technological landscape is key for its survival. By enlisting the support and expertise of the Gaelic community, and giving back to them in this way, we hope to demonstrate that any minority language can thrive in the digital age.”

Lamb also worked with researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches project, which aims to preserve and digitise material gathered in Scottish Gaelic.

Gaelic, which is native to the Gaels of Scotland, was once the majority spoken language of Scotland. However, the 2011 census showed that just 1.1 per cent of Scots aged three and above are able to speak Gaelic, with the greatest densities of Gaelic speakers in the Outer Hebrides.

There has recently been a surge of interest in saving the indigenous language from extinction, particularly among young people. In 2019, language-learning platform Duolingo – which supports other rare languages, such as Navajo and Hawaiian – launched a course in Gaelic to mark St Andrew’s Day. According to a press statement, 20,000 people registered for the course before its launch.

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