Mapping Language with Crowdsourcing

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On a recent trip to Switzerland, I was told by my hosts that it is very difficult to strike up a random conversation with the Swiss.

It’s not due to lack of friendliness—most people will happily nod or smile at you on the street. No, it’s because that, in a country with four official languages, starting a conversation with a stranger can be a linguistic maze; one that many locals would rather avoid. While many Swiss people speak several, if not all, of the country’s languages (French, Italian, German and Romansh, for the curious) no one wants to risk offending anyone by making an assumption about their preferred dialect.

A new app and some clever crowdsourcing, are tracking what is spoken where in Switzerland

But a new app might take the guesswork out of spontaneous conversation in Switzerland.

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern have developed an app to map Swiss-German dialects. The research team also published a corresponding paper entitled Crowdsourcing Language Change with Smartphone Applications, in PLOS One in early January.

In reality, the purpose of the app is less for etiquette and more to track the evolution of language in an environment as linguistically complex as Switzerland over the past 60 years.

Adrian Leemann, one of the study’s lead researchers, has created a similar app to map dialects in England. While the country lacks the variety of official languages of Switzerland, it’s still rich with regional dialects.

This paper presents the first account of how apps can be used to collect data suitable for documenting language change. – Crowdsourcing Language Change with Smartphone Applications

How it works

The app uses keywords with regional variations to predict where the user comes from and then locates the user geographically based on maps from the Linguistic Atlas of German-speaking Switzerland, which documents the linguistic makeup of the country around 1950.

If a user doesn’t agree with the prediction, they can tell the app where their dialect is from. 

“The use of crowdsourcing methods to investigate language change is, at present, unusual. Generally, scholars of language work with very small samples of speakers, in one or just a few locations,” said Leemann in a press release.

“Crowdsourcing apps like this one have the potential to complement existing data collection techniques and to provide evidence that the traditional method cannot hope to gather.”