By Kyra Ann Dawkins
This post was developed as part of the Columbia University course “Multilingual Technologies and Language Diversity” taught by Smaranda Muresan, PhD and Isabelle Zaugg, PhD. This cross-disciplinary course offering was a joint effort between the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Department of Computer Science, developed through the generous support of the Collaboratory@Columbia.
In our increasingly globalized world, the emerging digital sphere is portrayed as a space where we are able to enact our individual and collective identities through sharing knowledge. We are often told that the Internet is an inclusive hub of information and communication. We, as users of these technologies, would like to believe that we are a diverse lot. We would also like to believe that we shape digital technologies to embody the diversity we see in ourselves. It seems that new digital technologies are constantly being developed to meet our varying needs in smarter, faster, and more aesthetic ways.
Yet a startling reality destabilizes these narratives of technological progress. The digital sphere fails to reflect our linguistic diversity. Multilingualism may be a global norm, but digital technologies are linguistically homogenous in comparison (Thurman). In “Language Presence in the Real World and Cyberspace,” prominent linguist Daniel Prado notes, “Barely 5% of the world’s languages have a presence in cyberspace, and among those few, there are still considerable differences” (34). In terms of democratic representation, 5% is a frighteningly low portion. Within that small amount, English and other dominant languages serve as gatekeepers to higher degrees of digital resource availability and functionality. This means that the current infrastructure of the digital sphere limits the ways in which we can enact our linguistic identities online. To make matters worse, it also implies that people who don’t have access to resourced languages are not able to join us in the digital sphere at all. In other words, the linguistic landscape of digital technologies restricts how we can interact and who joins in our interactions. This creates an echo chamber of globalized language hegemony that often goes unquestioned.
We need to have chief authority over shaping our technologies and not vice versa. If the digital sphere is meant to become a new frontier of expression for all humanity, then as author Martin Benjamin asserts, “What is needed is the normalization of the expectation that each language should have a digital existence” (56). Without access to digital tools, languages, and language communities by extension, will die. Columbia University’s John McWhorter writes, “Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600” (62). Yet unlike McWhorter, who argues that the main loss of language death is aesthetic, we must acknowledge the unique expressions of human identity and culture that are at stake. The digital sphere needs to be as linguistically diverse as possible to preserve and uphold the rich multiplicity of human knowledge. We, as global citizens, must reimagine digital technologies and incentivize others to join our mission to ensure that all people can use their mother tongues on their own terms to embrace their linguistic identities on digital platforms.
A language’s digital vitality can be a critical component of maintaining its life in the real world. In a 2013 study titled “Digital Language Death,” renowned researcher András Kornai asserts that an estimated 95.5% of languages are at risk of extinction at-large due to their current lack of digital presence (8). Language maintenance is an intergenerational project ultimately championed or rejected by the youth. If the youth see that their mother tongues are not present in cyberspace, they will use more dominant and digitally accessible languages instead. This results in their mother tongues’ loss of function. Then, because the digital sphere is often deemed a treasured hallmark of modernity, digitally absent mother tongues suffer a loss of prestige. Finally, since the most pertinent modes of communication are conducted in other languages, the youth will be unable to speak their mother tongues well enough to speak amongst themselves or to pass down to future generations. This is a loss of competence that would eventually deteriorate into language extinction.
Kornai further conjectures that less than 5% of languages have any hope of ascending to the digital realm. Many of the languages he digitally condemns are oral languages, which make up 90% to 95% of the world’s linguistic landscape (Prado 38). Kornai maintains that, “Literacy in the traditional sense is a clear prerequisite of digital literacy, and languages without mature writing systems are unlikely to digitally ascend” (14). Perhaps Kornai is right to a certain extent. Digital technologies have yet to have the sufficient resources to properly meet the needs of oral language communities. However, Kornai, along with many other scholars, underestimates the potential of well-directed innovation. If priority, time, and funding were granted to oral technologies, then we would surely be able to find a way to provide digital access to oral language communities in their mother tongues. Frankly, with ample finances, attention, and dedication, almost anything is possible. The challenge lies in providing the right incentives. As Martin Benjamin recognizes, “The lack of a profit incentive for languages down the scale means that most DLD [Digital Language Diversity] efforts are promulgated by people with a greater sense of mission than a budget to implement it” (55). The path to multilingual reimagination of digital technologies is far from linear. Reaching our ultimate goal of an inclusive and linguistically diverse digital sphere will require some compromises.
The inclusion of Emoji in Unicode is a quintessential example of such compromises. As psycholinguist Michael Erard describes in “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets,” many of the volunteers at Unicode see emojis as distractions. Their position is understandable of course. Debating whether or not there should be a cupcake emoji may seem like a waste of time when there are scripts of endangered language communities to add to Unicode. However, these compromises encourage standardization and awareness. As Erard concedes, “Emoji has nonetheless provided a boost to Unicode. Companies frequently used to implement partial versions of the standard, but the spread of emoji now forces them to adopt more complete versions of it. As a result, smartphones that manage emoji will be more likely to have Hanifi Rohingya on them too” (Erard). The emojis act as an incentive for companies to standardize the production of more multilingually oriented technologies. Emojis also draw the attention of other volunteers to join in Unicode’s mission, ensuring that multilingual technologies are sustainably prioritized into the future (Erard). Whether or not we believe emojis are valuable additions to Unicode as ends in themselves, we can admit that they provide a dynamic means of garnering the leverage and resources necessary for attaining a reimagined digital sphere.
We cannot afford to allow our digital sphere to remain linguistically exclusive and homogenous. Languages should not have to conform to be compatible with existing technologies. We need to incentivize galvanized efforts to prioritize the development of multilingual technologies that meet the needs of language communities across the globe. Like emojis in Unicode, we may need to make some compromises along the way. Nevertheless, to honor the linguistic diversity in our world, we must persevere. The distinct beauty and knowledge held within each language is too valuable for us to lose.
Benjamin, Martin. “Digital Language Diversity: Seeking the Value Proposition.” Collaboration and Computing for Under-Resourced Languages: Towards an Alliance for Digital Language Diversity, 2006, pp. 52-58.
Erard, Michael. “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets.” The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/magazine/how-the-appetite-for-emojis-complicates-the-effort-to-standardize-the-worlds-alphabets.html?nytmobile=0.
Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013, e77056.
McWhorter, John. “THE COSMOPOLITAN TONGUE: The Universality of English.” World Affairs, vol. 172, no. 2, 2009, pp. 61-68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20671445. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.
Prado, Daniel. “Language Presence in the Real World and Cyberspace,” edited by Laurent Vannini and Hervé Le Crosnier, “Net.Lang: Towards the Multilingual Cyberspace. Maaya Network, C&F Éditions, 2012, pp. 34-51.
Thurman, Judith. “A Loss For Words.” The New Yorker, 23 Mar. 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/a-loss-for-words.