In my blog about endangered world languages I wrote that there are nearly 6,800 languages on our earth (give or take 200) and that one language dies every two weeks. Experts predict that more than half of them will become extinct by 2100. There are a couple major reasons for these deaths:
- Hegemony: Powerful groups have imposed their languages on speakers of less-common languages.
- Education: Children learn the dominant language and reject their historical one.
- Geography: Languages are geographically isolated from other cultures and languages.
A fourth reason?
Another force to blame – arguably more powerful than the ones above – is the internet. In a recent article in Motherboard.com Ben Richmond describes that only about 250 languages are well-represented online, and that another 140 are “borderline.” Less than five percent of the languages spoken today will “ascend to the digital realm.”
The most vulnerable languages
Those that are not in the 5% are what we’d call long-tail languages – languages with the fewest number of speakers worldwide. These endangered languages are ones you may not have heard of, such as Aikana (Brazil), Buryat (Russia), or Yerong (China). Half of our 7,000 languages on earth have fewer than 3,000 speakers.
If a language is not on the web does it exist? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer to both questions is arguably “no.”
These languages are not candidates for internet dispersion. Why not?
If it can’t be written, it can’t be published. Only half of the world’s languages have a writing system. Those languages will remain absent from the internet.
Apple won’t support the language in question. Ben’s blog suggests that if Apple supports it, then it’s real.
Small audiences; Underfunded efforts
The parties most interested in preserving a language would be the ones to push translated content to the web: Rosetta Stone and National Geographic’s Enduring Voices. They don’t have a lot of money to do it, and perhaps only scholars and linguists and a few internet-savvy remaining speakers of that language would read it.
The business context is perhaps the most important. Businesses push language content to the internet through online advertising, product support materials, web pages, forums, etc. Enterprises using the internet to grow their business may not choose to push content online in a specific language, based on low localization ROI. It’s budget weighed against potential gain in market share that would cause them to turn away from a language with limited speakers.
While non-profits and humanitarian organizations will fight to propagate and preserve these tongues, their venue for doing so will probably not be the internet. And we can’t reasonably expect enterprises to pick up the torch.
What other factors influence the staying power of ‘long-tail’ languages? Is there anything the internet community could do to preserve them?