20 Aug 2013

Can Silicon Valley Save Our Endangered Languages?

The number of languages spoken worldwide is unknown – mainly because it is not well defined what constitutes a separate language as opposed to a dialect. Ethnologue estimate that there are around 7,105 languages currently spoken around the globe. Most of these languages are spoken in Asia (2,304) and Africa (2,146). It is thought that 1,311 languages exist in Australasia and the Pacific, 1,060 in the Americas and just 284 languages in Europe.

As cultures collide and education is made more accessible, languages are continually being absorbed or replaced. As a result, a number of languages disappear entirely as more speakers of one language become so sufficient in a foreign language that they gradually shift allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their native language completely Also, languages with a small, geographically isolated population can become extinct if their speakers are wiped out by genocide, disease, or natural disaster.

Out of the 1,060 languages thought to be spoken in North America, Ethnologue estimated that 336 are dying (or 32%). In Europe, they estimate that 48 of the 284 existing languages are endangered (17%) and in Australasia and the Pacific it is thought that 207 out of 1,311 languages are endangered too – accounting for around 16% of all languages spoken in the region. The two regions with the largest number of different languages – Africa and Asia – have the lowest relative rates of language extinction at 6% and 8% respectively. Africa and Asia also have the lowest internet penetration and levels of literacy of all the regions mentioned above.

So it seems that regions with relatively low levels of education and internet penetration tend to have much lower levels of language extinction. This might lead one to believe that education and internet access are actually causing languages to become extinct. However, that may not always be the case.  In fact, some might argue the technology companies are actually helping to save endangered languages.

For instance, in August 2012, Microsoft announced the release of Windows 8 in a language that many tech analysts found surprising— Cherokee. Just a decade ago, Cherokee had no native speakers under the age of 40. Today, the North American language has a speaker base of around 16,000 people. Gmail also supports the Native American tribal language Cherokee.

In a similar vein, Google announced last year that it was supporting the Endangered Languages Project, an initiative to allow people to share information and resources about languages on the verge of extinction.

Google has a history of launching products in languages that fall outside of the mainstream. Its flagship search product has been available in Irish Gaelic for many years, even though the language has only about 133,000 native speakers, all of whom can speak English.

Google also continues to add new languages to their translation tool – Google translate – with Bosnian, Cebuano, Hmong, Javanese and Marathi added just a few months ago.

While these may seem like positively altruistic ventures, that may not be the case. Organisations like Google and Microsoft need to ensure that their products have a market for the foreseeable future. The best way of ensuring a market exists is by creating one. By targeting niche linguistic markets, the tech giant can increase future prosperity as more native speakers of those languages around the world gain access to the internet and go on to use these services.

Similarly, the relative importance of English in the world is set to decline. According to research from Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas, the global middle class will double in size, from 2 billion people today to 4.9 billion in 2030. The European and American middle classes currently account for 50% of the global total, but by 2030, they will account for just 22%. Asia, where more than 2,000 languages are spoken, will account for 64% of the global middle class.

So while Silicon Valley may be hedging their bets for the future by developing platforms and services for niche foreign languages, they may unknowingly be allowing these languages to flourish thus increasing the likelihood of them existing in the future.


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