European Languages

Most European Languages Face Digital Extinction

If we talk about endangered languages we usually think of indigenous languages that are spoken by only a small group of people. Therefore the study titled “Europe’s Languages in the Digital Age” by META-NET was a bit of a surprise to many, myself included.

It seems as if most European languages face “digital extinction” in the years to come. And that does not only include languages like Latvian, Lithuanian or Maltese but also German, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish!

The study compared 30 different European languages and how well they are supported online in the fields of machine translation, speech processing, text analysis and speech & text resources. No surprise, English is the only one with good support in all categories though it still not got rated with excellent support.

So why are all of the other 29 European languages in danger of disappearing from the Internet? Modern technology like Apple’s Siri, Google Translate, online spell and grammar checkers as well as navigation systems rely on databases with previously translated words and phrases for their automatic translation. The fewer content there is available, the higher the risk of digital extinction.

If there aren’t enough resources available, modern technologies that rely on the data mentioned above won’t be able to support those “smaller” languages, leading to their disappearance from the world wide web.

So what can be done against this? On the one hand, more content, text and audio, needs to be created in those languages. An interesting approach heading for this is Duolingo, a startup that offers free self-directed language courses by letting the users crowdsource translations of texts from websites and other online sources. Currently, Duolingo is only available in Spanish, French and German but after its recent $15 million funding round I am sure that other languages will soon follow suit.

via NBC News

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  • reinier_post

    A fascinating subject!

    I’m not sure whether the project members would agree with your summary. In the volume on Dutch (http://www.meta-net.eu/whitepapers/e-book/dutch.pdf), on page 5, the opposite statement is made: while originally, English was the lingua franca of the Internet, nowadays, the native language of most Internet users is a language other than English, and that is the language they predominantly use in Internet communications. What is lacking, they argue, is not the use of languages other than English, but software support for them at levels comparable to what is available for English.

    No doubt, computers and the Internet have promoted the use of English at the expense of other languages, but that doesn’t mean it will drive them to extinction. I believe the use of languages is influenced far more by cultural and political developments than by technological ones. And let’s not forget that throughout history, for anyone acting in multiple, sufficiently different communities, multilinguality has always been the norm. Your use of English is not going to make your use of German and French go away; the same holds for me; and this does not make us exceptions, this is the norm, this is what inevitably happens when people use language. Unilinguality is really an abstraction, a very useful one, but still an abstraction, and a pretty leaky one when you look at it closely.