Celebrating International Mother Language Day (February 21) – USA

Kristin Tolle
Feb 21

International Mother Language Day was created in 1999 when the United Nations General Assembly called on members to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”  When languages fade, the UN says, “so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future – are also lost.”

In honor of this important day, we asked Microsoft researcher and college professor Kristin Tolle her views on language, translation and what makes a good educator.

Do you agree with the UN’s assertion that “languages are increasingly under threat or are disappearing altogether due to the impact of globalization”?

Yes, everything I’ve seen supports that statement. We recently conducted workshops in the Hmong community in Fresno, California. After two generations, the grandkids of original immigrants can understand the Hmong language, but they can’t speak it. Even more surprising, when teaching a machine translation class in Nepal recently, I learned that most students there are not fluent in Nepalese. Because it’s not economically viable, students are penalized for speaking their mother language. It brings home how important it is to protect their culture and how fragile that culture is in this Internet-driven world.

How does your work address the issue?

Machine translation demand-specific models are hard to do, so we let others tap into the Bing translator model. We provide the Microsoft hub service (API) to communities, enabling them to work together to build their own translation models and preserve their native languages. In the case of the Hmong community, multiple generations contributed documents and time, reviewing and correcting the translation model. This enabled us to release Hmong Daw (our 38th language) Bing translator capabilities today, in honor of International Mother Language Day.

What are some of the practical applications of this work?

One example is the Gates Foundation. In their agriculture and health development efforts, they’ve found that so much vital information is locked up in major languages. Translation is a way to bridge the gap, making critical data available to the masses. There are also business applications – for example, the model has allowed Intel to translate its technical manuals.

Why is education important to you?

My motto is “Never, ever stop learning.” Learning is one of my favorite things to do and being able to facilitate others to learn, in particular children or under-served communities, is a fantastically satisfying experience.

Can you describe the teacher who most influenced you?

Medical Scientist and my first computer programming professor, Dr. Wita Wojtkowski. Not only is she one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever met, she instilled in me that there is always more out there to joyfully learn and experience. Her two favorite phrases were, “There is always more life to live, things to learn” and along the way, “Remember to stop and smell the roses.” Her powerful joie de vitale instilled in me that I could make a positive difference and be a force for good in this world—not to mention, enjoy it along the way.

How can other educators implement what you’ve learned?

The important thing is to not forget a student’s humanity. If you appeal to a student on that level—that they can have an impact and that they can make a difference, they will commit themselves to learning more about what you are teaching. Draw on real world examples to engage them emotionally as well as intellectually.

If you could change one thing about today’s “system” of education, what would it be? 

Standardized testing. There has to be a better way to evaluate students than our present system. Some of the most brilliant minds the world has ever known would have failed. Einstein, for example.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Bringing the real world into education. Increasingly massive repositories of real scientific data are being made freely available online. Tapping into these online resources and including students earlier in real world research is a great way to encourage them that they can have an impact today. That way they can be the researchers and scientists of tomorrow.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Bring a strong human aspect to the classroom, both in curriculum and in the way you engage with students. Individuals count more than school years, classes or even groups within classes.

What is your greatest hope for the future of education?

I believe that it will take out of the box thinking to fix our present education system. I’m thrilled that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are working to help improve this area. I look forward to future outcomes fueled by the rich interactive engagements that cut across disciplines—the very type of engagements that has brought the Foundation successes in their other endeavors.

Machine translation can play a critical role in preserving languages. What else can be done to ensure this vital link to our past is saved?

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About Kristin M. Tolle

Kristin Tolle, MS, Ph.D. is the Director of Natural Interactions in the Microsoft Research Connections team and a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington (College of Medicine). Since joining Microsoft, Dr. Tolle has acquired several patents and worked for several product teams including the Natural Language Group, Visual Studio, and the Microsoft Office Excel Team.  Prior to joining Microsoft, Tolle was an Oak Ridge Science and Engineering Research Fellow for the National Library of Medicine and a Research Associate at the University of Arizona Artificial Intelligence Lab managing the group on medical information retrieval and natural language processing.  Her
research interests include; ubiquitous computing, global public health, contextual computing, natural language processing and machine translation, mobile computing, user intent modeling and information extraction.
Birthplace: Pocatello, Idaho
Current residence: Redmond, Washington
Education: Bachelors of Science in Computer Information Systems; Masters of Science and Ph.D., Management of Information Systems.
Website I check every day: http://www.bbc.com.
Person who inspires me most: My mother. She tirelessly educated high school students for forty years and now tirelessly educates her family on life, love and patience.
Favorite childhood memory: Composing my first song, which was a precursor to the enjoyment I derived from writing my first computer program.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Machu Pichu, Peru or Skye Island, Scotland
Book I recommend: The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery
Favorite book: The Black Swan, by Nassim N. Taleb


Microsoft is committed to helping more people worldwide benefit from technology, while striving to preserve local languages and cultural identities. The Local Language Program (LLP) is part of a worldwide initiative dedicated to providing individuals access to desktop computer software in their native language.

Microsoft’s Local Language Program includes programs and products focusing on the importance of language and culture.  Microsoft is a leader when it comes to offering the most widely used software, Windows and Office, translated into nearly 100 languages. It provides easy to use translation tools in 46 languages to quickly change any web page into a familiar language, and offers the Translator Hub providing custom language translation models to encourage the vitality of a native language.  There will always be a language barrier but through Microsoft’s language offerings the technology barrier has been broken and we are reaching 90%+ of the global speakers in the world.

Microsoft is also committed to advancing solutions that empower local language communities to discover, share, and develop IT terminology in their native language.  To that end, Microsoft sponsors the Microsoft Language Portal which gives local language communities access to the Microsoft Terminology Collection where they can find standardized terminology for many Microsoft products and services in close to 100 languages. The Portal enables external developers, customers, and authors to search online or download the right translations and style guides, many of which were created in collaboration with local governments, universities, and other members of the international community.

What is the Microsoft Translator Widget?
The free Microsoft Translator Widget allows you to bring real-time, in-place translation to your web pages. Users can see your pages in their own language, without having to go to a separate translation website, and share your page in multiple languages. You can customize a widget for your site at www.microsofttranslator.com/widget/

To learn more about using the widget, get help, or interact with other website owners, visit the Microsoft Translator forums at http://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/category/translation.

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