The Internet: A lifeboat for endangered languages?

Internet screen.JPG

This article is part of our special report Innovation and the Digital Economy.

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.

The DL Bruxelles-Europe debate was moderated by Quentin Dickinson, Brussels bureau chief for Radio France, a public broadcaster.

Dickinson pointed out that the Internet had seen English emerge as a global lingua franca spoken by more and more people across the world. About half of the content on the Internet is published in English, he noted. This has created a corresponding impoverishment of the English language to a lowest common denominator – what many now call "Globish".

With the Internet now spreading in new parts of the world, this could be an opportunity for languages that once lived in the shadow of English – at least in the cyberspace. Some languages like Spanish and Mandarin are now being spoken more and more over the Internet for example, he said.

Nicole Dewandre, an advisor on media and information society issues at the European Commission, put the conference debate in the context of the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth, and its flagship initiative on the Digital Agenda.

She then underlined the deep changes that the Internet has brought for modern societies. The virtual world is "destabilising society", said Dewandre, who is also an engineer and a philosopher, by "blurring the frontier between what's real and what's virtual."

"We must learn to see clear in a different context," said Dewandre. "From a collective point of view, we will have to learn to see things differently."

Christophe Leclercq, founder and publisher of, gave the point of view of the online media network, which publishes in 15 languages in 15 countries.

"The cyberspace is a chance for multilingualism," said Leclercq, adding that the Internet was much cheaper and easier to use in multiple languages than print publications. "A print media in 15 languages would not be possible," Leclercq stressed.

Leclercq underlined that the EURACTIV network operates in a decentralised manner, with independent editorial teams producing their own content locally, in their own languages, allowing countries to cover different topics according to their cultural interests.

"Multilingualism can be supported by the Internet if can decentralises," Leclercq summarised. As for the French language, it is present in two forms – as a translation of the original English on and on the Paris-based localised version

Georges Kottos, head of unit at the European Parliament's IT directorate, outlined how the Internet has changed the way translators and interpreters work. The 1990's, he said, saw the appearance of the first automatic translators which were very poor in terms of the quality of the content as computers only understood basic "Anglo-Saxon" language, without recognising accents for example.

With the Internet era, multilingualism has become a basic functionality of websites, enabling users to access differentiated information according to their preferences. In the European Parliament, for example, officials can automatically filter content according to their language preferences or the topics they follow, leaving out information that is not relevant to them.

The European Union is committed to promoting multilingualism and aims to have every EU citizen speak at least two foreign languages. However, in practice the websites of many EU institutions and agencies limit themselves to one or two working languages.

The question of language-use is sometimes a contentious one. For instance, attempts to create a European Patent using only the English, French and German languages have been opposed by Italy and Spain as discriminatory.

The predominance of English has been criticised in particular by French-speaking groups such as the Francophonie and the Association pour la Défense de la Langue Française (DLF).

The latter has often granted a satirical prize to EU officials – including Romano Prodi and Jean-Claude Trichet – for "overuse" of English.

  • 2-6 July 2012: Forum mondial de la langue Française (Québec).
  • 2017: UN considers organising a World Summit on linguistic diversity.

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