Languages on the Brink


Words | Eleanor Taylor

In the Age of Extinction, technology can help or hinder cultural preservation. The extinction of languages is an ongoing process across the world. Every two weeks, the last speaker of a language dies, and at the current rate 50-90% of languages will be extinct by the end of this century.

Imperialism and globalisation are two critical factors in driving languages and their respective cultures to extinction. The Sinicization of Tibet has eradicated much of Tibetan culture, including languages. This form of cultural genocide leads to rising crime rates and mental health issues. In Canada, one study found that youth suicide in Indigenous populations dropped to almost zero when members of their communities could speak conversationally in their native languages. Languages are an integral part of cultural identity, and when people lose their cultural identity, it severely detriments their mental health. In Australia, at least 100 Aboriginal languages have been lost since the arrival of European colonists who committed a violent genocide which aimed to erase Indigenous people and their culture from their land. The oldest living cultures in the world belong to Australia’s indigenous population, and it is a tragedy that we as a society have endangered it’s survival.

But not all language extinction can be attributed to cultural genocide which is enacted systematically by settlers and governments.  On the internet, approximately only 7% of the world’s languages have been published online. The internet excludes marginalised communities and has also forced many people to learn English and abandon their native languages. For example, Spanish and English are two languages dominating the web. Spanish is the primary language spoken in Guatemala. The problem with this is that there are 22 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, but these dialects have no representation online. This effectively forces the language speakers to learn Spanish for them to be able to access information and engage with the world. 

Only 57% of the world’s population have access to the internet and online infrastructure.  That means that about 3 billion people are offline, a huge amount of people who aren’t writing, communicating or sharing with the world. Clear drivers behind this are poverty, instability and other factors limiting the development of infrastructure. But one often overlooked aspect is the language online content is in. Over 80% of Wikipedia articles come from Europe and North America; 75% of domains also come from these regions. This lack of accessibility is likely part of what prevents people from using the internet. Not only does this block out marginalised groups but also disincentives people from learning them. Why would someone choose to learn a rare Indigenous Mayan language, when they could learn English or Spanish and interact with a far larger group of people.

There are other limits to the accessibility of the internet which seem small but have significant impacts, for example, keyboards are often not available in indigenous languages; instead, they are only manufactured for dominant ones. Another contributor to this issue is the fact that some indigenous languages simply have no written form which further complexifies this multifaceted issue.

It should come as no surprise that tangible inequality offline is reflected on the internet, where Indigenous language speakers are excluded from conversations, information and entertainment.

It is imperative that the internet adapts to its users rather than the other way around. 

But there are projects taking advantage of modern technology to develop innovative solutions to the problem of language extinction. For the first time, we have the technological capacity to record languages so that even if their native speakers die out, there will always be a video record. 

Wikitongues is a nonprofit based in New York who record languages. Their founders Bogre Udell and Frederico Andrade aim to create an archive of every language in the world. So far they have documented over 300 and are aiming to reach 1000 soon. In ancient civilisations, languages can be indecipherable or impossible to speak because we have no idea how to pronounce their sounds. Not only does this project preserve current languages, but it has also discovered one from Vanuatu which had never before been heard. Similar to this, National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project compiles audio, definitions and images to document rare languages.

Working to bring the internet to people who speak the Mixtec language of Mexico (over half a million people), Victorias Aguilar is currently developing a typeface which will enable her to write online using her language. Wikipedia has acknowledged the issue of multilingual diversity and has published in over 300 languages. However, they rely on second-hand sources and what already exists online. In some ways, corporations such as Wikipedia have made a significant contribution to the preservation of languages, but ultimately communities, media and journalism all need to build these sources.

Fortunately for oral languages, Lingua Libra, A Wikimedia project was launched in 2018 and hoped to record as many verbal languages as possible.

In Australia, the government has invested 5 billion dollars in the Indigenous Advancement strategy and is also investing in initiatives to recognise the role of language and culture for Aboriginal people. Currently, massive conversations are occurring between the government and Indigenous groups to discuss how to use technological solutions to preserve Indigenous languages. The United Nations had predicted that 90% of the world’s population will have access to the internet by 2050 and ultimately the rising importance of technology in our lives will either help or hinder the preservation of minority cultural groups.