THE BLOG
25/07/2018 12:15 BST | Updated 26/07/2018 14:52 BST

How The Digital Era Can Breathe New Life Into The UK's Threatened Languages

Many dying languages may find life in the next generation’s appetite for digital technologies

Artur Debat via Getty Images

Yethow an bys yw yn peril.

In case you aren’t fluent in Cornish, that means: the world’s languages are at risk. More than at any other time in history, in fact. According to UNESCO, 230 languages became extinct between 1950 and 2010. Currently, another one dies every two weeks. 

It’s a trend with potentially serious ramifications – not just linguistically but from a social and historical perspective too. After all, much of a community’s unique cultural heritage is preserved in its native tongue.

As for why languages are disappearing, many blame the ever-increasing amount of time people spend in digital worlds dominated by English. True enough, the top 10 languages of today are spoken by roughly half the global population, while a third of the world’s native tongues have fewer than 1,000 speakers left.

One of those languages is Cornish. Declared almost extinct in the 18th century, it was revived in the 1900s. Although low on speakers today, the Cornwall Council is refusing to slide quietly into history alongside the likes of Etruscan and Prussian. Mark Trevethan and a network of dedicated community volunteers aim to double the number of Cornish speakers by 2025, primarily by increasing the resources available to enable local communities, teachers and schoolkids to use the language.

The efforts of Trevethan and other minority language champions are to be applauded. Yet according to Michael Bauer, a Scottish Gaelic language expert with whom I speak regularly, it’s not just the world’s, or even the UK’s, super-small dialects under threat. Bauer believes that compared to behemoths like English, Spanish and Chinese Mandarin, even supposedly major languages like German and French risk being swallowed by linguistic globalisation.

Of course, the notion of languages exchanging words and absorbing foreign terms into their own lexicon is nothing new. Of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, many are the direct result of exactly that. But what’s concerning linguists is the lopsided way in which it’s happening, and the speed.

It’s a problem but it’s where modern technology may hold the key. “Getting the right tech in place is vital to motivating people to use minority languages in daily life,” says Trevethan. “Take predictive texting - it might be something as simple as organising a group trip via WhatsApp, but being able to do it quickly, easily and without being autocorrected encourages speakers to use Cornish rather than revert back to English.”

There’s been a steady increase in the use of technology supporting these smaller languages in everyday life, including predictive tools which encourage users to learn new words by suggesting minority language alternatives as they type. AI-powered mobile keyboards use natural language processing and machine learning technologies, helping users type freely and predictively in their language without being constantly (and annoyingly) prompted to correct into English or laboriously enter words letter by letter.

Of course, having the technology in place is just one part of the story. We must also give people the confidence and knowledge to actually use it. One of the barriers to converting speakers from software that uses majority languages to native versions is their innate reticence to tinker with settings on their devices.

Fortunately, there’s another, more positive paradox at play here too. We’ve discussed linguists’ concerns about people’s constant exposure to English in the online world. Yet, the irony is many of the world’s dying languages may actually find life in the next generation’s appetite and aptitude for digital technologies. For me, safeguarding the future of Cornish, Scots and Scottish Gaelic – and other worldwide threatened minority languages, like Siksiká/Blackfoot, Ju|’hoan, or Yiddish – is not about looking backwards. Rather, it relies on our ability to develop new technologies that inspire and enable digital natives to speak them after we’re gone.

In other words, language preservation may be an age-old question, but it requires a very modern answer.