Computer Scientist Wins Fulbright Award to Bring Irish Language Online


  • newswise-fullscreen Computer Scientist Wins Fulbright Award to Bring Irish Language Online

    Credit: Maggie Rotermund / Saint Louis University

    Kevin Scannell, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at Saint Louis University.

Newswise — Kevin Scannell, Ph.D., a professor of computer science, was named a 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholar. He will spend the first six months of 2020 in Ireland, doing research and developing computing resources for the Irish language.

“The goal of my work is to make it easier for Irish speakers to use the language online without having to shift to English,” Scannell explains. “This includes basic technologies like keyboard input methods, spelling and grammar checkers, and online dictionaries, as well as more advanced tools like translation engines and conversational agents (like Siri or Alexa).”  

Scannell works to develop computing resources that help people around the world use their native language online. He is particularly interested in Irish and the other Celtic languages; he has developed an Irish spell checker, grammar checker, and thesaurus, as well as dictionaries and translation engines that support Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic. Scannell is currently a member of the team that provides Irish localizations for software products including Gmail, Twitter and WhatsApp.

“Irish is the first official language in Ireland even though it is only spoken daily by about 70,000 people, many of those located in so-called Gaeltacht areas where Irish remains the day-to-day language of the community,” Scannell said. “I’ll be living and working in a small town called Carna in County Galway, in the heart of one of the strongest Gaeltacht areas, where there is an academic center dedicated to research and teaching of the language.”

Scannell will be working in collaboration with researchers at Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge (Academy of Irish Language University Education) in Carna.

“My plans for the upcoming year are to focus on Irish and the other Celtic languages which share similar linguistic structures,” Scannell said. “I’ll also make use of an important technique known as ‘transfer learning,’ which allows resources for one language to be transferred directly to another (usually related, but less-well-resourced) language.”

“The research landscape in this field has changed rapidly with the introduction of neural network and deep learning approaches over the last 10 years or so. The difficulty for a language like Irish is that these new approaches require tremendous amounts of data to work well, much more than can reasonably be produced by such a small language community. The main research challenge is to look for ways to reap some of the benefits of the deep learning revolution in a context where there is very little data to work with.”

Scannell, who has been at Saint Louis University since 1998, teaches a “Taming Big Data” course, the first class for undergraduate students enrolled in the new bachelor of science in data science. He also serves as the director of the graduate program in the Department of Computer Science, where SLU offers Master’s programs in computer science and software engineering. 

The Fulbright award runs from January to July of 2020. During that time, Scannell will reside in Carna, but he will also visit Dublin to collaborate with the Royal Irish Academy on their historical dictionary of Irish.

The Fulbright Program

The Fulbright Program was set up by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 and is the largest U.S. international exchange program in the world. It offers opportunities for students, scholars, and professionals to undertake postgraduate study, research, and teaching in 155 countries worldwide.

The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.

 

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