[viewpoint] Time to Computerize Korean Language

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[viewpoint] Time to Computerize Korean Language

Special interpreters are disappearing from international conferences. E-mails written in different foreign languages and web information from overseas are automatically translated into Korean, and treatises on specialized subjects are arranged and abstracted by computers. People even converse with computers as with friends.

This is not a movie scenario. According to the Bible, men's arrogance in building the Tower of Babel caused God to confuse them by causing them to speak in mutually unintelligible tongues so they would not be able to cooperate against Him. But now language barriers are falling due to the development of computers and language engineering. In essence, we are in a pre-Babel age.

A great number of linguistics specialists and engineers are concentrating on the development of studies and techniques to make human language intelligible to computers. Advanced nations have accumulated enormous databases on their native languages and have studied methodologies by which computers might analyze the databases. They have found commercial applications such as machine translation, information retrieval and speech recognition.

Compared to this, Korea has not yet developed means for accurate analysis nor accumulated much data on its language, and therefore has not progressed in commercializing the applied technologies mentioned above. In the future, if this "computerized linguistics" is ignored, there is a possibility that the Korean language would decline to minor status in the Internet age. If Korea is unable to acquire independent language management techniques, it will have to use different software developed by the advanced nations.

In these times many languages are disappearing. It is predicted that in 100 years more than 90 percent of them will be extinct. It may be a bit hasty to conclude that computerized linguistics is the cause for this trend, but one thing is certain: The development of technology accelerates the speed of the extinction of languages.

In the past, movements to induce affection and pride in the use of the Korean language by appealing to patriotism were effective. But in the current situation, where information technology drives the world, it is impossible to enhance and improve the Korean language by depending only on appeals to patriotism. A variety of means and an environment to utilize and seek information easily should be made. Linguists and engineers should take this responsibility in the 21st century.

It was none too early that the government undertook in 1998 a full-scale project on the computerization of the Korean language under the name of the "21st Century Sejong Project." This project has spent 3.5 billion won ($2.8 million) over 3 years in accumulating enough data to fill the equivalent of 2,000 novel-sized books. This corpus of written text or transcribed speech can serve as basis for linguistic analysis and description.

To develop an electronic dictionary, a database of 200,000 words has been collected. Also, computer programs were developed to search for the rules of orthography, standard language and adopted words, and to compare and search the 10,000 most frequently used words of North and South Korea. The project has activated academic and business circles alike, both of which had longed for precise and large-scale language resources. Companies developing grammar-checking machines may reduce the time and budget needed for developing electronic dictionaries by applying the corpus to check the function of language programs beforehand.

Now is the time to expand the foundation of the computerization of the Korean language in accordance with the requirements of academic and business circles for greater language resources. Korea should develop language information projects as a new industry of the 21st century and jump into ranks of competitive nations in knowledge technology.

by Kim Soo-youn

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