By Anjali Krishnan
(See the author’s video about social media and indigenous languages here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jsgry4EZ-A)
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.
Language, culture and identity are inextricably tied together. For most cultures, language is the cornerstone of cultural identity. Though there are many features that mark cultural identity, such as race, religion and dress, language is salient because it is the vector through which these other major aspects of human culture are transmitted (Romaine 32). A loss of a language, therefore, is a loss of a body of cultural knowledge and tradition that contributes to the rich cultural diversity of the world. If all languages had an equal number of speakers, each would have around 880,000 (Romaine 33). Instead, we find most speakers concentrated in a few majority languages and languages of minority groups contributing to the bulk of the world’s language diversity. To put this in perspective, about 94 percent of the world’s population speaks 6 percent of the world’s languages and, conversely, about 94 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by 6 percent of the world’s population (Romaine 33). Many of the languages that fall under the category of minority languages are in danger of extinction, with some estimating that one language is driven to extinction every 14 days (Temperton).
The extinction of minority languages across the globe, also termed “linguicide,” is a result of dominant power structures and ruling elites (Orlin 48). The widespread use of a few majority languages across the world is unquestionably tied to colonial history. A good portion of the world’s majority languages are those of former European colonial powers (Ethnologue). The introduction of languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese as lingua franca for nation-states has undermined minority communities’ ability to maintain their traditional languages (Romaine 33). Language is, for many, a marker of national identity and a way to join citizens into a political entity through a common means of communication. It is also a political device for encouraging or establishing a singular nationality (Orlin 50). The nation-state plays a critical role in deciding which languages have majority status through the implementation of policies that mark majority and minority languages (Romaine 33), including the standardization of national languages and implementation of their usage within the state.
With political and historical factors fighting against the preservation of minority languages, it is imperative to turn to solutions outside the nation-state that may function as a means of minority language preservation. The rise of technology and the internet has provided the potential for minority languages to flourish. Because technology is such a prevalent part of daily life, access to it is almost a necessity for participation in global information networks. Further, the global reach of the internet is a crucial tool for communication across borders. The exchange of languages online affects how users connect with each other, contributing to senses of inclusion and exclusion and the formation of groups around commonalities (Young). Bringing minority languages to the digital space offers them the possibility of participation in global information networks and adaptation to the changing landscape of communication processes. Mathematical linguist András Kornai refers to the preservation of minority languages through the process of digital ascent, whereby a language increasingly acquires digital functions and is afforded prestige as its speakers continue to acquire digital skills (Kornai 1). The ascension of languages digitally is a key factor in their continuance. Many digital markers, such as the existence of a Wikipedia in a particular language, contribute to whether the language will succeed in the digital realm or not (Kornai 2). While not all languages may become digitally vital, the pursuit of bringing minority languages online certainly gives them a chance at preservation.
Yet, the transition of minority languages to the internet is not without its challenges. According to the UN, only 500 of the world’s over 7,000 languages are used online and that number grows smaller as one looks at specific sites such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn (Temperton). The prevalence of majority languages is just as much a problem in the digital world as it is in the real world. English’s status as the “lingua franca of popular culture, scholarship and international discourse” (McWhorter 66) is reinforced by the availability of English language content online. English dominates the internet, with 55% of the 10 million most popular sites written in English with languages like French, Spanish, Chinese and German in tow (Temperton). Technological hardware also reinforces the dominance of majority languages with keyboards favoring the Latin alphabet and the QWERTY keyboard (McWhorter 66). Additionally, the process of globalization is a double-edged sword for languages. While globalization and the spread of technology provides disparate cultures with a method of global connectivity, it also amplifies the power of majority languages. Communication technology plays an important role in linguistic power relations, and the ICT industry oftentimes favors majority languages to the detriment of others (Prado 38). The digital divide and infrastructural issues are also barriers to promoting language diversity on the internet. If minority language speakers do not even have access to the internet, its positive affordances are irrelevant.
Still, one cannot deny the importance of digital technology for minority languages. Efforts to make internet-based communication more accessible to diverse language speakers through the creation of multilingual character-encoding is a positive step in the process for minority language support in the digital realm (Anderson 27). Support for languages continues to grow on social media sites such as Facebook, which now supports several indigenous languages such as Quechua, Cherokee and Guarani (Emmanouilidou). Though the process of preserving language diversity in the context of the internet is complicated and the internet does not always have a positive effect on language diversity, it is an important strategy for combating the historical and oftentimes state-supported subjugation of minority groups and their languages. In the face of globalization, the role of technology is impossible to ignore in its relevance to global communication networks. If minority languages can become digitally ascendant, perhaps the process of language extinction, if not stopped, can at least be slowed.
Anderson, Deborah. “Global Linguistic Diversity for the Internet.” Communications of the ACM, vol. 48, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 27–28.
Emmanouilidou, Lydia. “For Rare Languages, Social Media Provide New Hope.” NPR, 26 July 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/07/26/333732206/for-rare-languages-social-media-provide-new-hope.
Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 22 Oct. 2013, e77056, pp. 1-11.
Orlin, Theodore. “The Death of Languages; the Death of Minority Cultures; the Death of a People’s Dignity.” Cultural and Linguistic Minorities in the Russian Federation and the European Union, edited by Heiko F. Marten, Springer International Publishing, 2015, pp. 47-79.
Prado, Daniel. “Language Presence in the Real World and Cyberspace,” Net.Lang: Towards the Multilingual Cyberspace, edited by Laurent Vannini and Hervé Le Crosnier, Maaya Network, C&F Éditions, 2012, pp. 34-51.
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, edited by Heiko F. Marten, Springer International Publishing, 2015, pp. 31-46.
Temperton, James. “Languages Are Dying, but Is the Internet to Blame?” WIRED, 26 Sept. 2015, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/linguistic-diversity-online.
“What Are the Top 200 Most Spoken Languages?” Ethnologue. 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/ethnologue200.
Young, Holly. “The Digital Language Divide.” The Guardian, http://labs.theguardian.com/digitallanguage-divide/.