Languages are vanishing around the world at an alarming rate; every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker,according to UNESCO. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct and, today, a third of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 1000 people.
This threat to linguistic diversity is acutely felt by indigenous people. Therefore, the UN declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (#IY2019). It aims to raise awareness of indigenous languages and the ways in which they contribute to the world’s rich culture.
Language is not only important for communication, but also for each person’s sense of identity, their culture, traditions and memories. When a language goes, so too does the link to the cultural and historical past.
Languages die out because society forces young people to neglect their language or because they choose not to learn it. At the same time, older community members who speak threatened languages are themselves dying out.
Photo by Terricks Noah from Pexels
The linguistic digital divide
One factor making it harder to keep indigenous languages alive is the fact that computing technologies – search engines, spell checkers, machine translators and so on – tend only to be available for the main languages of the world. This limits opportunities for people to use and access lesser-used languages, like those spoken by indigenous peoples.
This digital divide between dominant and minority languages formed the core of recent discussions at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) forum, held as part of #IY2019.
Panellists at the forum discussed how to reduce the digital exclusion of indigenous peoples. One good example comes from the Sami community in Norway. TheSami Parliament, working with the Arctic University of Norway, is engaged in initiatives to create free and accessible technologies for Sami speakers. These include computer and phone keyboards, and spelling and grammar checkers.
Going forwards, we need to ensure that digital technologiesserve all languages. Ninety-five percent of the world’s languages are spoken by just 6% of all people, so one big challenge is cutting the cost of developing indigenous language technologies.
The reasons for language extinction are clearly much greater, and complex, than the mere absence of minority language technologies. However, it does appear that such technologies could certainly play their part in helping protect the world’s precious languages.