DFKI-LT - What is Language Technology?

by Hans Uszkoreit

Language technology — sometimes also referred to as human language technology — comprises computational methods, computer programs and electronic devices that are specialized for analyzing, producing or modifying texts and speech. These systems must be based on some knowledge of human language. Therefore language technology defines the engineering branch of computational linguistics.

We teach computers to communicate with people.

Although existing LT systems are far from achieving human ability, they have numerous possible applications. The goal is to create software products that have some knowledge of human language. Such products are going to change our lives. They are urgently needed for improving human-machine interaction since the main obstacle in the interaction beween human and computer is a communication problem. Today's computers do not understand our language but computer languages are difficult to learn and do not correspond to the structure of human thought. Even if the language the machine understands and its domain of discourse are very restricted, the use of human language can increase the acceptance of software and the productivity of its users.

Friendly software should listen and speak.

Natural language interfaces enable the user to communicate with the computer in French, English, German, or another human language. Some applications of such interfaces are database queries, information retrieval from texts, so-called expert systems, and robot control. Current advances in the recognition of spoken language improve the usability of many types of natural language systems. Communication with computers using spoken language will have a lasting impact upon the work environment, completely new areas of application for information technology will open up. However, spoken language needs to be combined with other modes of communication such as pointing with mouse or finger. If such multimodal communication is finally embedded in an effective general model of cooperation, we have succeeded in turning the machine into a partner.

Machines can also help people communicate with each other.

Much older than communication problems between human beings and machines are those between people with different mother tongues. One of the original aims of computational linguistics has always been fully automatic translation between human languages. From bitter experience scientists have realized that they are still far away from achieving the ambitious goal of translating unrestricted texts. Nevertheless, they have been able to create software systems that simplify the work of human translators and clearly improve their productivity. Less than perfect automatic translations can also be of great help to information seekers who have to search through large amounts of texts in foreign languages.

Language is the fabric of the web.

The rapid growth of the Internet/WWW and the emergence of the information society poses exciting new challenges to language technology. Although the new media combine text, graphics, sound and movies, the whole world of multimedia information can only be structured, indexed and navigated through language. For browsing, navigating, filtering and processing the information on the web, we need software that can get at the contents of documents. Language technology for content management is a necessary precondition for turning the wealth of digital information into collective knowledge. The increasing multilinguality of the web constitutes an additional challenge for language technology. The global web can only be mastered with the help of multilingual tools for indexing and navigating. Systems for crosslingual information and knowledge management will surmount language barriers for e-commerce, education and international cooperation.

Our research combines ambitious visions and realistic applications.

The future of language technology will be determined by the growing need for user-friendly software. Even though the successful simulation of human language competence is not to be expected in the near future, researchers have numerous realistic short-term goals involving the design, realization and maintenance of systems which facilitate everyday work, such as grammar checkers for word processing programs, intelligent email sorting and response generation, document categorization and summarization software, and systems for extracting selected information from large volumes of text. Thus work on language technology spans a wide spectrum of ambitious tasks ranging from the study of human language and thought via the development of novel computational techniques all the way to the marketing of profitable LT products.