Of the world’s many thousands of languages, only a handful dominate global industry and commerce. Mandarin, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Arabic might be the world’s most-spoken tongues, but indigenous languages such as Zulu in South Africa and Quechua in the Andes of South America are being given a major technical assist by software giants, which are offering search engine and communications services in an increasing number of ethnic languages and dialects.
Ethnic Versus National Languages
The United Nations’ cultural body UNESCO lists over 6,000 living languages spoken on the planet, but people unfamiliar with the subject of linguistics might only be aware of high-profile national languages such as Russian or Japanese, or languages of empire like English and Spanish.
But ethnic languages — those spoken by indigenous peoples, minority groups, and other designated populations — comprise 94% of all languages spoken on the planet, according to the SIL Ethnologue linguistic almanac: Yucatec Maya from southeastern Mexico and Hausa, spoken by an estimated 35 million people across West Africa, are just two.
However, of these thousands of languages and dialects (language experts still disagree about whether some languages are distinct or merely dialects of the same language, often a political question), only some 276 are spoken by a million people or more, according to indigenous advocacy group Cultural Survival. A great many of the rest are in danger of extinction, as elder speakers die and youngsters are formally educated in the mainstream national language.
Software Companies Join the Fight
Language experts might disagree about language versus dialect, but software companies nonetheless differentiate between American and British English or Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. Now, major tech companies are expanding into heretofore overlooked markets and helping to solidify efforts to save dying languages from going the way of the dodo.
Using computers to help stave off the demise of an endangered language is not new; in the 1980s, anthropologist H. Russell Bernard helped to develop an imperfect but workable digital format for several indigenous languages in Mexico. Many of these languages didn’t possess a writing system, which meant no one was reading or writing anything in those languages.
Bernard worked with indigenous advocacy groups, educators, linguists, and other experts in creating systems which, via computer, would allow for literacy training, as well as the development of a literary canon of folktales and new material from writers in the languages.
Nowadays, the technology is far outpacing its previous versions. In late 2014, tech journal eWeek reported that Microsoft released a preview version of its Skype Translator service, which translates spoken and written text into other languages instantaneously.
According to Computerworld magazine, the current iteration of the software simultaneously translates spoken conversations into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin, but the text chat component translates into 44 languages, including Yucatec Maya, Welsh, and indigenous Mexican language Queretaro Otomi, all three of which have less than 800,000 speakers and are located in countries with stronger mainstream national languages.
Microsoft is also set to release its Universal Shaping Engine, which will allow for the correct display of several of the world’s writing systems that had, before Windows 10, been either improperly displayed on screen or unable to be displayed altogether. Speakers — and readers — of Balinese, Sudanese, and Tibetan and about forty other languages, many of which are only spoken on certain islands of Indonesia or the Philippines, will now see their writing systems displayed correctly and in several fonts within Microsoft products.
Google has also been very active in language preservation, first through its Endangered Languages Project, a collaborative effort with the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity to offer technological support to researchers and organizations devoted to the study and preservation of endangered ethnic languages. Currently, Google’s search engine can be accessed through over 120 languages, while its popular translation service features ninety.
In a 2014 article for innovations/MIT Press, Iris Orriss, director of internationalization and localization at Facebook, noted that even though 1 in 7 people globally use Facebook, that number is disproportionately represented by users living in the developed world who access the Internet in their languages. “The result is that people in emerging markets are disinclined to connect to the Internet because they have to use a foreign language to navigate it. This is the language barrier.”
Like Microsoft and Google, Facebook has undertaken efforts to bring down those barriers. The video below highlights just one of those: how Facebook’s decision to include Guaraní, a native official language indigenous to Paraguay, resulted in 50 percent growth in its user base in the country. The platform is accessible in more than 75 languages; 40 more are on the way.
“The Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century,” noted Frank La Rue, special rapporteur to the United Nations in 2011. While much is said (and debated) about English as a lingua franca, efforts to extend multilingual access to a world of web users are a welcome priority.
What do you think of corporate contributions to endangered language initiatives? Share in the comments.