A recent study by the nonprofit META-NET found that 21 European languages are at risk of “digital extinction.” Twenty-one languages going the way of the Dodo bird.
Breathe that in for a moment.
Usually, when people talk about endangered languages, something like Yurok jumps to mind—a Native American language, which according to UNESCO has only 12 remaining speakers. Not Icelandic, Maltese, or Swedish. These are languages of entire nations with millions of native speakers.
But in Internet terms, they are relatively small.
META-NET’s report examines the quality of language support on such things as Web search engines, automatic translation systems, spelling/grammar checkers, even those smartphone assistants like Siri, and the voices in your car that tell you when you made a wrong turn. The study worked with a sample of 30 European languages (Europe boasts approximately 80) and found that that digital support for 21 languages was “nonexistent” or “weak” at best.
Perhaps even more worrisome is the list of seven languages the next level up that had “fragmentary support”—a list that includes Dutch, Italian, and German. Even Spanish and French were deemed to have only moderate support. The one language that had good support? You guessed it: English.
English is still the dominant language on the Web, and most English speaking countries top the charts in terms of Internet users as a percentage of the total population. Despite China’s relatively low internet penetration (22.6% in 2010), Chinese is on the rise and expected to eclipse English soon as the language spoken by the most Internet users, according to NextWeb.
On one level, it makes sense that online support for languages would focus on the most popular spoken languages. But in a world of nearly 7,000 languages, serving only a handful is a huge problem. It cuts people off from useful technology and information—which is not just a human rights concern but a business one. For instance, think of how many millions of potential customers speak those 21 European languages.
So, there may be some opportunities here.
When people can’t find their language in the digital world, they have only a few options: leave by abandoning the website or device that doesn’t speak to them; adapt by learning a language that is available; or fight to have their language included.
My bet is that most will fight, and that the companies that help them in that fight will earn some loyal customers. After all, no one wants their language to go the way of the Dodo.