St Louis computer wizard revolutionizes learning Irish

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If we allowed ourselves to reminisce and think back to our school days, remembering how we rhymed our times tables 12 and unrolled our agam, agate, aige, aici, could we have found a way to connect the two?

In St. Louis, Missouri, there is a professor who does just that. Kevin Scannell, professor of mathematics and computer science at Saint Louis University, has combined his love of the Irish language with his background in mathematics and research into computer programming languages. Scannell uses machine learning to develop computing resources that support native and minority language speakers, particularly Irish and other Celtic languages.

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While studying math at MIT during his undergraduate years, the Boston native became more interested in linguistics, and Irish in particular, and so began to learn the language himself. alongside his formal studies in mathematics.

“My learning of the language was only through books and anything I could get my hands on. So for many years it was just a purely written language for me,” explains Scannell.

At this point he had not visited Ireland but identified as Irish and felt connected to the language.

“I’ve always had an interest in language. My father always told us that we were Irish, although he was born in the United States; his parents were born in the United States. But we kind of identified ourselves that way. It was mostly a matter of strong Irish identity and upbringing,” he says.

He studied the language mathematically because that’s what came naturally to him.

“It was very natural for me, I used it as a kind of puzzle, right? You read a text, and it’s very complicated. And you kind of work on the meaning things, and that’s kind of my way of thinking.”

He chose to learn Irish and he stuck to it: read, dissect, understand, learn. He took every opportunity to learn Irish alongside an already heavy academic workload.

“It wasn’t until many years later, when I was able to afford to travel and go to Ireland, that I started to learn to speak it properly, more or less. My spoken Irish is not what I would like it to be, although my understanding of grammar and written language is quite good,” he says.

Today, Scannell has a very clear understanding of the language and an unwavering dedication to working on technical platforms to facilitate the language’s reach to people of all ages, abilities, countries and demographic groups.

“I was on mailing lists and mailing lists, and everything we had in the ’90s,” he explains. “There was no Facebook or Twitter etc. But there were still ways to interact in the online language and I took all those opportunities.”

And yet, there was always hesitation because he was not confident in his skills and abilities in the Irish language.

“As a learner, I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I was nervous about spelling things and putting seimhiú in the wrong place, etc. So I used my software development skills to produce some of these very early tools like a spell checker and a grammar checker, initially really just to help me out and give me a bit more confidence in using the language on the computer.

“When I put some of them online, they were met with enthusiasm because there weren’t really resources like that in the early 2000s. It just grew from there and kind of morphed into a full-time job for the last 15 years or so – I don’t even do math anymore,” he says.

ONE-STOP SHOP

Scannell has posted many other Irish language learning resources for free at cadhan.com. Enter a Gaeilge phrase into this site, and it will help you with spelling and grammar. This website is a one-stop-shop for all the Irish language resources he has worked on and includes tools in other Celtic languages ​​including Manx and Scottish Gaelic:

Scannell’s work under the Gateway Arch in St Louis is complemented by other university teams in Ireland. Trinity College Dublin developed abair.ie with a focus on dialects and Dublin City University is doing groundbreaking work around English to Irish translation.

If you get your Firefox or Gmail browser as Gaeilge, you’ll find that Scannell and his team are behind this.

“With a team of people in Ireland, we’ve translated a whole bunch of different websites and software packages etc, so you can use things straight into Irish. The Firefox web browser was really the first big browser in 2003. Gmail was the other very big and well-known example,” he says.

For Firefox and Gmail, this means menu choices and buttons are in Irish.

Scannell also worked with other languages, and if something worked well in the Irish language, he made it available to other communities. About 10 years ago, he started a website called Native Tweets, which was supposed to help people use Twitter in their native language. He started with the Irish language model and adapted it for other languages.

FIVE MILLION TWEETS

“I developed a way to connect Irish speakers with each other on Twitter. But that same approach was easily generalized to many other languages. I would just add to the website gradually, and there are now over 100 languages ​​on the website. Some of them have quite a large presence on Twitter, like Irish, where there are something like 15,000 users, and we get to five million tweets in Irish,” he says.

Some languages ​​only have two or three people who only connect occasionally, but Scannell still thinks it’s extremely important to give these speakers a platform to connect.

“It could be people like me, who are geographically separated from the kind of homeland, the áit dhúchais. And social is one of the advantages of social media. There are also a lot of disadvantages, but one of the things what it does well is that it crosses those geographic boundaries and allows people to reconnect with other speakers,” he says.

Twitter scouted its website and then hired Scannell in 2011 to do software development.

“I was happy to be the person, the friend of the court, so to speak, and to be an advocate on the inside and say to them, yes, you should support all these other languages ​​in a way that you are not. And in fact, I think that’s one of the reasons why Twitter is now available in Irish as well,” says Scannell.

Awarded a Fulbright in 2019, Scannell traveled to Carna in County Galway and worked with researchers from Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge. Unfortunately his visit coincided with the first Covid lockdown and he spent much of his time in lockdown.

As a professor who teaches computer science, Scannell encourages his students by describing software development and programming languages ​​as a sort of “superpower.”

“If you have a really good idea, as a developer you can create a computer program and then create a website. And then if it takes off, you could have thousands or millions of people who are ready to use it. I also described speaking Irish as a superpower in the sense that it opens up the whole story of Ireland. I thought I had all that knowledge about Irish history and politics when I was younger and growing up, but it wasn’t until I really learned the language properly that I really unlocked a lot of that history: everything encoded in place names and geography and soon. Without a really rich knowledge of the language, everything is somehow hidden.”

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