The digital language divide: How does the language you speak shape your experience of the internet?

The digital language divide


Which languages will survive online?

In the paper Digital Language Death researcher András Kornai predicts that 95% of all languages in use today will never gain traction online.

The paper claims to “present evidence of a massive die-off caused by the digital divide”. Will the internet act as a catalyst for the extinction of many of the world’s languages? The issue of linguistic representation online is still a problem only for those who are able to access the internet, with billions remaining digitally disenfranchised. However, as internet access continues to extend to geographies and communities previously disconnected, and more users come online from the developing world (pdf), it seems sensible to assume that the linguistic elite will be challenged.

Access to the internet also offers the opportunity for linguistic empowerment: to document and preserve languages, to share teaching material to encourage new speakers, to translate important information for marginalised groups, and even to create virtual communities of speakers where they may struggle to exist offline. The Endangered Languages project is one example of using online platforms to this end. The internet can also be a place not only for languages to evolve, but to be invented or to find a second life. The project Muysccubun for example has been working to document and share the extinct Muisca language, historically spoken in central Colombia, by creating online dictionaries and building a community around their Facebook page.

“95% of all languages in use today will never gain traction online”

András Kornai

Is there a danger however that instead new users, influenced by the volume of content in more dominant languages, will abandon their mother tongues online? Research has suggested (pdf) that speakers of smaller languages online will often opt to use the internet in a larger language, even if they don’t speak it well. This makes sense: if you are a bilingual speaker of English and Zulu for example, there are clear advantages to using the English edition of Wikipedia with close to 5 million articles, over the Zulu edition with only 685.

Inee Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute, points out the that the fact many indigenous languages only exist in oral form creates an additional barrier: “If the digital media is heavily literacy-based, the digital world is not friendly for indigenous language users.” It is possible that as the digital divide closes, instead of encouraging greater linguistic diversity, there will be a negative feedback loop where dominant languages are made even more prevalent.


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