Sami language users do not have equal access or opportunities online

Within the framework of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, a three-days (4-6 December 2019) International Conference is organized at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France

Anne Karin Olli at the conference
Anne Karin Olli at the conference

Dear Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information, Excellencies, Dear friends.

First, I would like to thank you for inviting me to take part in this conference – and for the possibility to hold this opening speech on behalf of the Norwegian government.

My name is Anne Karin Olli. I am State Secretary in Norway – responsible for questions regarding the Sami – the indigenous people in Norway – and our national minorities. Issues relating to minority languages are my responsibilities, and also close to my heart. I belong to the Sami minority myself.

I would like to first give you a small insight into the digital society that is Norway, and of the obstacles facing minority language users there. Here, I will allow myself to get personal. Second, I will inform you about what the Norwegian government is currently doing to try to overcome the obstacles facing minority language users. Third, I would like to call upon you all to cooperate with us in working towards opening up digital systems and platforms for minority language users, and together make the digital world equally accessible for all.  

It is obvious that digitalisation and digital technologies change all aspects of our societies. Let me take myself as an example:

I go online to communicate with friends and colleagues. I check social media and post pictures. But I also pay my bills online, order health appointments and check my taxes. In Norway, most important life choices have an online component: applying for marriage, getting a job, registering a new business.

For most of my Norwegian-speaking friends and colleagues, rapid and increased digitalisation is taken for granted. This is not the case for those who speak one of the minority languages.

I am responsible for these issues in the government, but as mentioned, I also belong to the Sami minority myself. The Norwegian Sami Act states that Sami and Norwegian languages are of equal worth. Still, if I were to log on to digital platforms as a Sami language user, the world would look different. I do not find the Sami letters I need on my physical computer keyboard. My web browser is only available for me in Norwegian. There is no Sami language app that can help me with directions to my hotel tonight. And I cannot ask my phone to call up my daughter in Sami.

Perhaps most importantly in this regard, there are many public services that are not available for me online – if I am a Sami language user.

Those were the obstacles. To put it bluntly: Sami language users do not have equal access or opportunities online.

The Norwegian government, which I represent, has taken some steps towards changing this scenario. The largest of these is that we finance the language technology development work which is done by Divvun and Giellatekno at the University in Tromsø, in cooperation with the Sami Parliament.

Their work in indigenous language technology development - over the past fifteen years – has resulted in machine-readable grammars – in the form of bidirectional models (for those of you who know what that means). These models are capable of analysing and generating every word form of the language.

The models developed are in turn used as key components in many tools, including spelling and grammar checkers, desktop and mobile keyboards, morphological and syntactic analysers, machine translation, speech synthesis, language learning tools and intelligent electronic dictionaries.

The Norwegian Government is proud of the work done at Divvun and Giellatekno, and considers what they do to be best-practice in this field. They are on par with the technological development – and sometimes ahead of it. An important positive element is that the developed tools can be used for other minority languages as well. I hope some of you can benefit from them.

Still, it is a problem that every Sami language user has to download each tool individually. It is also a problem that many large companies do not offer minority language solutions, or open up for third-party actors like Divvun og Giellatekno, to provide such solutions. Divvun will present their views on this matter tomorrow.

Being responsible for minority languages in Norway, I see that I have a challenge which can only be overcome if policy makers like myself, cooperate with businesses that create the digital platforms that we all use – and with the language users themselves. In Norway, we are working on establishing a dialogue with large technological companies and with the Sami Parliament to find solutions that can work for all. I hope that this cooperation will have fruitful outcomes.

Partnerships between technologists, policy makers and language users are at the core of this conference. I hope we can use these days to actively discuss the boundaries and possibilities that lie ahead of us. I am looking forward to all the discussions and debates.

Thank you very much for your attention – and good luck with the conference!