Reding: ‘Endangered languages could be saved by the internet’

Viviane Reding said the the internet has helped less widely spoken languages like Luxembourgish. [European Parliament]

This article is part of our special report Domain names on a multilingual internet.

Internet platforms have helped the internet to become more multilingual, and especially less widely spoken languages like Luxembourgish have benefited, Viviane Reding told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

Reding is a centre-right Luxembourgish MEP. Before joining the European Parliament in 2014, she served as EU Commissioner for culture, information society and justice. She spoke to EURACTIV on the sidelines of a recent debate in the European Parliament on internet domain names and multilingualism.

This interview has been edited for length.

Since your time as Commissioner, do you see that language diversity online has increased in Europe or is the opposite happening and English is becoming more dominant?

I have seen for Luxembourg, Luxembourgish is a spoken language on a small territory and the online community became a huge community. All Luxembourgers or those who have relations with Luxembourg all over the globe started to communicate in Luxembourgish on the internet. The community became much, much bigger than the linguistic space was and because the spelling and the grammar was somehow shaky in personal messages, this led the government to come out with a new initiative to newly reframe the way Luxembourgish is written.

Does it seem like the effects might be more obvious in a country that’s very well connected like Luxembourg compared to countries with a bigger digital divide, like Bulgaria, for example? [99.98% of households in Luxembourg subscribe to fixed broadband internet, while 55% of Bulgarian homes do.]

Yes, we have a digital divide too but it’s interesting to see it was not a top-down decision because you cannot access the internet through Luxembourgish, you have to access it through French or English or German, whatever. But then people access it and use their own mother tongue. It’s interesting. Even without having direct access, the way they utilise it shows our language is Luxembourgish and we do not want to have any imposed language. That was the first time you could measure what was going on. The discussion in France somewhere, in New York, you cannot measure. But online communication in Luxembourgish you can measure. It was a very interesting phenomenon which shows that less numerous languages, endangered languages could be saved by the internet.

Do positive effects outweigh the negative in terms of how the internet is developing for speakers of those less widely spoken languages?

Absolutely. What becomes important is the infrastructure for that language, that would be the second step. But I do not believe that it’s only by the infrastructure that you can save them. There was an important declaration today [during a debate in the European Parliament] that, ‘It’s only when more than 50% of people are accessing and speaking a language that the whole thing changes’. That means it is bottom-up more than top-down.

EU urged to help expand internet domain names in different languages

Researchers and officials working on internet governance have urged EU institutions to help expand the use of internationalised domain names, which contain letters from alphabets including Cyrillic or Greek, or accented letters like in the word “café”.

When you talk about infrastructure, do you mean internet domain names?

Domain names and access for the language you need. That is of course very important for people not using Latin characters. You just spoke about Bulgarian, for instance, where that’s more important because Luxembourg uses Latin characters. So it’s easier than with another language. We are multilingual but we’re not writing in the other languages. We’re writing in our own language.

You have been supporting internationalised domain names [domain names that include characters from non-Latin alphabets or accent marks like in the word “café”] since you were EU information society Commissioner [2004-2010].

The domain “.eu”, that was the initiative I was taking into my hands because we were always thinking of having the biggest organised internal market in the world. But we forget to tell it outside. The “.eu” domain was a very important element for me in order to have this visually, and also to create the message that this is a market not only for goods and services but also for people to exchange.

Looking at internet domains, it’s still only 3% of all domains in the world that are internationalised and contain non-Latin scripts or accent marks. Do developments like “.eu” and other actions in Europe still seem to work and move this trend in the right direction?

Yes, but unfortunately the big domain names are very dominant and very often there is a difficulty to have access to smaller domain names. I believe this is more of a technical question. Because if there is no more blocking of access for this domain name, then there is access. Again, for having cultural diversity and linguistic diversity, if you apply this principle you also get rid of the blockage.

Someone from Facebook mentioned all the different languages that are available for users of the platform during today’s debate. In Brussels there is a lot of discussion about whether American tech companies from Silicon Valley pose a threat to European competitors. Do they actually present a threat to European tech firms in terms of making English more dominant?

The example I can use is Facebook, where Luxembourgish users, even if they’re in Washington or Honolulu, will write in Luxembourgish. But they will access the system in French or in I don’t know what, but not use it with this accessed language. That is why I say that this barrier for broadband access is very true. That means this bottom-up approach imposes a language in the end, and then brings about the technical changes that are necessary. I believe you come from the bottom-up to technical changes, rather than that technical changes bring you a different language.

Does there need to be a change in EU policy to make the internet more multilingual?

Yes, and that needs to be that every time it is necessary and useful that cultural diversity is taken into consideration. We have to be very diverse also in the way we take our decisions but the principle should be clear: cultural diversity, linguistic diversity and then leave the people what they are and preserve what they are.

New language protocol seeks to level linguistic playing field

More than a hundred ambassadors representing 25 minority European languages signed a protocol guaranteeing linguistic rights this weekend. EURACTIV Spain reports.