Digitalisation could preserve minority languages, MEP says

An increased reliance on digitalisation could help to preserve minority languages despite the English language dominating online, a leading MEP has said.

Czech MEP Michaela Sojdrová, who sits in Parliament’s Culture Committee, told EURACTIV in a recent interview that digitalisation offers new communication platforms for minority languages, which can aid their long-term preservation.

She also stressed that protecting minority cultures and languages is a way of enabling their integration in society.

“We should be sensitive towards the minorities. We should help preserve their culture and language while enabling them to integrate into majority society,” Sojdrová said.

In the EU and UK, with a population of around 500 million people, there are 40 to 50 million people who speak one of its 60 regional and minority languages, but some such vernaculars are at serious risk of extinction, according to the Regional and minority languages in the European Union report.

In this vein, Sojdrová noted how exclusion by language could become a serious problem in the EU in the future. “Multilingualism is at the heart of the European Union,” she said.

Lack of online diversity

However, the lack of multilingualism online can be a problem when we talking about inclusion.

The technological evolution we have seen over the last sixty years has made it possible to communicate broadly across continents in real-time. But at what cost for multilingualism online?

UNESCO estimates there are some 6,000 languages spoken globally today, but half of them could be extinct by the end of the century. The report also finds that 50% of the world’s population shares just six native languages.

Analyzing the open web environment, the percentage of English language websites is 59.5%, according to W3Techs, a marketing company specialized in the research of the Internet population by language.  In the same list, Russian appears in second position and Spanish in third, with 8.6% and 4%, respectively. The first 14 languages represented in the list of W3Techs accounted for almost 94% of Internet web pages.

Emily Taylor, the leading author of a UNESCO report on Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs), commented that “major world languages such as Arabic or Hindi do not even account for a fraction of 1% of the web content,” adding that in the online space, such languages appear endangered, not reflecting their offline reality.

The situation is even worse when speaking of regional and minority languages. Some 150 languages, including Catalan, Northern Sami and Corsican, represent 0.1% of all websites.

Taylor pointed out that when there is support for languages online, whether they are indigenous, endangered or official languages, it acts as a stimulus for speakers.

“When Google started to support South African Languages online, we saw an increase of users in such languages. There is a link between the creation of resources for minority languages, employment and computer ownership”, Taylor said.

“If you go online and there is absolutely nothing in your language, why go online?” she adds.

During the last few years, social networks have increased their scope in terms of available languages, providing users with the opportunity to express themselves in their native language while also obtaining simultaneous translations in languages not their own.

Taylor believes that governments and institutions can learn from these kinds of successes.  “What the social media environment shows us is that when languages are supported people really use them, and they really appreciate it,” she said.

But there is more to that. Taylor defends the need to go further because the problem “it is not only to write and read content is the ability to navigate in your language”.

“We are talking about inclusion, diversity and the richness of the language,” and that is an area where the web environment needs to catch up,” she said.

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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