Digital Language Death

Digital Language Death: How the Internet is killing Languages

I’m guilty. Guilty because I contribute to the digital death of languages through blogging and interviewing solely in English. As you might know, English is neither my native language, my mother tongue is German, nor is it the language of the country I currently live in, that would be French.

The decision to publish everything in English wasn’t really a question I had to answer for myself, it was rather corollary. Think about it, when you want to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible and you work a lot with English native speakers it’s hard to justify any choice other than English.

Now you can say that my two other living languages, German and French, aren’t endangered languages on the verge of extinction, but I certainly also don’t make the digital landscape of languages any richer. Well, maybe Deutsch Happen, my YouTube channel and blog that teach others German for free, counts in my favor.

Some 18 months ago I wrote about the launch of Google’s Endangered Languages Project for Big Think. As I stated back then, it’s a bit funny for a company who is largely benefiting from English as the de facto language of the Internet, not to say the world’s dominant language to launch such a project.

And although I haven’t checked back on the Endangered Languages Project thoroughly, I also haven’t heard about it in the news or read about it on other blogs since. Maybe the saying “A quiet conscience sleeps in thunder!” describes best how Google feels about it these days.

On Fair Languages we covered the prospects of European languages based on the study “Europe’s Languages in the Digital Age” and found out that many European languages face digital extinction in the years to come.

However, I found more food for thought and a thorough analysis on the state of languages on the Internet and their digital death in the Plos One journal.

Author Kornai found out that “less than 5% of all languages can still ascend to the digital realm”. In other words some 96% of all known languages don’t find any use in the digital world.

Of the remaining 4% 170 languages (2%) are described as so called ascending languages, or have already ascended. These are languages with big numbers of users who regularly publish or communicate in these languages on the Internet. Another 140 languages (1.7%) are so called ‘borderline’ languages, languages in the middle, whose fate is not yet decided. An example here Moroccan Arabic.

The situation is not all hopeless, however, the study names several minority languages such as Komi that were able to cross the digital divide thanks to their community of speakers who regularly use them when on the Internet.

That said Author Kornai states that some of the efforts to preserve certain languages both in the EU and outside, for example in Wikipedia incubators, are only too often what he calls “feel-good” efforts, something that I thought about the Google project above.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is not a very optimistic one. As the situation presents itself for around 95% of the world’s languages there is little hope of crossing the digital divide.


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  • http://andreklein.net/ André Klein

    Und just aus jenem Grunde ist es lobenswert, ab und zu einen Blogpost auf Deutsch zu schreiben. Sicher nicht massentauglich, aber zum Glück ist Quantität selbst im Zeitalter der digitalen Reproduzierbarkeit nicht der Weisheit letzter Schluss.

  • Gonzo

    Good, makes more sense to use one language that is already the most popular and often used around the world. I think that five or six languages is enough for this planet and English should be a primary language everywhere with a secondary one that would depend on the region to honour it’s history (e.g. french in UK, spanish in Spain etc.). This would help the living generation in this transitiory period but let’s forget about dialects and avoid confusion. Invisible borders should be next if we are free humans since there’s no need for so many small weak countries, one universal money currency is also mandatory if this race wants to follow logic and hopes to evolve, finally there’s religion but this is a really complicated problem that needs a certain point of view from majority.

  • Lux

    Gosh, this is so true. Because I try to cater to everyone, I use English (as also discussed in a seminar I’ve attended) as it is the “universal language”.

  • robert45459

    I also agree with you that now there are many people are addicted in mix language and they forget their mother tongue. So for that we need to aware and also try to continue the communication with others.