Viewing Digital Language as Intertwined with Spoken Language

By Sophie Lanier

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.

Before this course, I had very limited knowledge of language endangerment and none about efforts to prevent it or about digital technologies for languages other than English. I have since learned about the extent to which language death can harm a population through loss of culture and identity, as well as the ways that a lack of digital technologies for a language can exacerbate such issues. This is the subject of Suzanne Romaine’s article, where she argues that the extinction of smaller languages is generally “part of a wider process of social, cultural, and political displacement” (32) which happens to the poorest and most marginalized groups. Romaine shines light on the “human and social costs” (34) that come with “[d]iscontinuities in transmission of culture and language” (34) but gives a positive declaration that communities which are able to maintain and promote their language and culture have better outcomes, as they can “claim ownership of their past and future” (39). I believe this is a very important insight and gives even more urgency to the project of preventing language death. Through the first part of this course, I’ve come to believe that in the internet age, the problems of language extinction and non-availability of language technologies are so intertwined that any talk of one must include the other. In this post, I’ll discuss Maik Gibson’s framework of digital vitality, and how we can best apply his (and other) recommendations to promote language justice in the form of accessible digital technologies.

In his “Digital Language Death,” András Kornai presents a framework of classification for languages which includes four categories, Thriving, Vital, Heritage, and Still. These categories correspond to the amount a language is used in the digital sphere. While Kornai’s framework of digital language death is important, I believe that Maik Gibson’s extension to the concept of digital language vitality is more useful and constructive for the activist project of deciding what steps need to be taken to help a language’s vitality improve. In Gibson’s “Assessing Digital Vitality,” he expands upon Kornai’s model by including two new categories, Emergent and Latent; he also frames the paper around concrete conditions that must be met for a language to be classified as any category. He gives recommendations for languages which are attempting to move up from Still or Latent, including ensuring that a language is being successfully transmitted between generations, that there are suitable fonts available, and that a community has a desire to technologize their language. He frames the conditions for each category as necessary to be met before a language can ascend to the next category. For example, an activist who tries to encourage use of a language for interpersonal communication cannot succeed unless the community members are interested in and enthusiastic about digitizing their language.

Social efforts to teach language and digital availability are mutually important in the effort to keep languages alive and enable them to ascend from one category to another. Specifically, language nests, or immersion-based learning environments, as well as the availability of scripts on computers and cellphones have stood out to me as ways that children can become invested in learning their language, one of Gibson’s conditions for a language to move from Still to Latent. Judith Thurman’s “A Loss for Words,” which focuses on efforts by individuals and groups to revive languages, mentions the Mohawk tribe’s language nest for children, as well as language camps it holds for adults. She quotes linguist K. David Harrison, who says that it is important both to transmit the language to children and also to increase its prestige “so that the young embrace it” (Thurman). In this vein, it is important that scripts for smaller languages be available in things like Unicode so that people can use their language in everyday communications like text and email, which helps to move them further in their digital vitality. In “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets,” Michael Erard discusses Unicode’s original mission to “bring the personal-computing revolution to everyone on the planet, regardless of language.” He notes the new upkeep required for Emoji and decries how this added responsibility slows down the effort to spread digital language representation. I understand that users of Emoji have been forceful in their calls for new and different Emoji, but I also believe Unicode should focus most of its effort on encoding scripts – this is an essential step in increasing a language’s digital vitality and should be a priority for a company like Unicode. Tina Rosenberg’s “Everyone Speaks Text Message” shows a real example of how script encoding can benefit a language community in many ways. She talks to Ibrahima Traore, who speaks a Mande language which is written in the N’Ko script. N’Ko has been added to both Unicode and Microsoft, which has allowed Traore to communicate with his family in Guinea much more easily. These developments have also brought new hope for Guinean literacy. Right now, students are taught to read and write in French, which is not the language they speak at home; with the ability to access and create learning materials in N’Ko, Traore thinks literacy could improve.

Both language nests and digital technology advancements such as script encodings are important to increasing language vitality. Each is necessary for the other to thrive, and they are also aimed toward passing language on to children. This intergenerational transmission is one of the foundational conditions for Gibson’s Latent category, and so I believe it is one of the basic and most important things people interested in language justice can focus on. As Suzanne Romaine shows, disconnections from language and culture can be incredibly harmful to communities, but increased ability to reconnect to languages through technology could be equally beneficial. I believe this idea should guide the work of people in language justice but also that digital technologies should not be forced on communities that do not want them. It is a reality in today’s society, whether fortunate or unfortunate, that being part of the globalized world requires technology; however, I do not think every community wants to or needs to exist within the globalized world. Increasing digital vitality of a language can be helped along by script encoding and other techniques, but these should, as Gibson says, only happen when a language community desires technologization.

Works Cited

Erard, Michael. “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets.” The New York Times Magazine, 18 Oct. 2017,

Gibson, Maik. “Assessing Digital Vitality: Analytical and Activist Approaches.” Proceedings of the LREC 2016 Workshop,

Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013,

Romaine, Suzanne. “The Global Extinction of Languages and Its Consequences for Cultural Diversity.” Cultural and Linguistic Minorities in the Russian Federation and the European Union, 7 Jan. 2015,

Rosenberg, Tina. “Everyone Speaks Text Message.” The New York Times Magazine, 9 Dec. 2011,

Thurman, Judith. “A Loss for Words.” The New Yorker, 23 March 2015,



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