Although the English language continues to dominate the Internet, the rise of global economic powerhouses like China and Russia has seen a surge in what used to be considered second-tier languages, a Brussels conference heard last week. Meanwhile, the UN predicts that half of the world's 6,000 languages will become extinct by the end of the century.

With the rise of the Internet, the 21st century could witness a renewal in linguistic diversity, said Daniel Prado, a renowned linguist of Franco-Argentine origin.

"Some languages can resuscitate, or even be reborn," said Prado, who was previously a senior official at the Unión Latina, an intergovernmental organisation.

"There is a new competition between languages," fostered by a kind of online "prestige", said the renowned linguist, who was speaking at a debate organised by DLF Bruxelles-Europe, an association promoting the French language in EU circles.

Mandarin has now become the second most used language on the Internet, Prado said, followed by Spanish, Japanese and French.

And the Arab Spring has seen a surge of activity in Middle Eastern countries, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, which the protestors used heavily.

"Some languages can regain value thanks to the Web 2.0," Prado said, citing the Arab Spring as an example. Malay, the language spoken in Malaysia, is the third most used language on Twitter, Prado said, after English and Japanese.

But the Internet can also be seen as a threat for languages, he warned. In 2005, Google did not recognise Hindi, which is spoken by 300 million people worldwide, or Swahili, spoken by 30 million.

"Technologies offer tremendous potential for languages but also represent a risk as to date only a small minority of the 6,000 languages ​​spoken in the world is available in cyberspace," Prado said at the event, hosted by the Goethe Institute in Brussels.

50% of languages to disappear by 2100

Prado's analysis came amid gloomy projections by the United Nations on linguistic diversity. UNESCO estimated in November that about half of the 6,000 languages spoken today across the globe would disappear by the end of this century if nothing was done to protect them.

About half of these languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people, Prado said, making them particularly vulnerable in today's globalised world, where communication has become all important.

However, this process is neither inevitable nor irreversible, UNESCO said, as policies can support efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalise their mother tongues.

UNESCO this year launched its "endangered language programme" to support governments and local communities on language policy. The progamme's flagship initiative is an interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, which can be consulted online.

Prado runs a global network focussing on linguistic diversity online, launched by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place in 2003 and 2005. The network, called Maaya, aims at promoting language learning at an early age at all levels of education everywhere in the world.

If the Internet can constitute an opportunity for languages, Prado said, the first step is to ensure that everyone gets access to it, which is still far from being the case.

A world summit on linguistic diversity could be organised by 2017, Prado indicated.