Thanks to the Internet, linguistic anthropologists today have a forum for alerting the public and activists when a language is in danger of becoming extinct.
But while the worldwide web has opened up avenues of communication and support for even the most obscure tongues, it has also served as a tool for the proliferation of content on websites published in English and other major world languages that now dominate our digital space.
Earlier this year, The Guardian, citing UNESCO, reported that English represents a whopping 30-50% of all online content with Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic next in line. That leaves the rest of the world’s 6698 living languages to share less than a quarter of the remaining digital universe. Languages like Gaelic, Latvian and Lithuanian, which may not be on the verge of actual extinction, are thus quickly losing ground in the race to maintain an online presence.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the European Union (EU), which boasts 23 working languages, of which only three are considered to have any major online standing. For sure, certain countries have worked hard to protect their language and culture. France, notably, has the Académie Française and has even gone so far as to institute a national regulatory commission to ensure target language content remains dominant in the French media.
Yet for many groups with less-widely spoken tongues, government funding and support is either lacking or simply not enough. And for once, the world’s bi- and multi-lingual speakers may actually be contributing to the problem.
Here’s why: the EU has a 2+Mother tongue language policy in effect and often its multi-lingual speakers choose to publish content in their region’s dominant language, which is not always their native tongue. And this trend is not just a problem in Europe. The world’s English as a second or foreign language speaking population is growing by the minute and only furthering the penetration of English websites into every country’s digital space from Mongolia to Taiwan.
But what if we could not only stop this disconcerting trend but actually reverse it by adding more speakers to these languages’ ranks? It’s not just a possibility but a soon to be reality thanks to a few innovative language learning platforms who source open content from the web.
Solutions like Lingua.ly and Italian born Lithuanian startup Bliu Bliu, replace traditional language programs with realia based lessons grounded in digital immersion. Lingua.ly, a learning platform that supports a free dictionary, flashcard tool and adaptive article suggestion mechanism understands a user’s working vocabulary and then matches them with target language content from the Internet that contains a 90:10 ratio of known to unknown words, to give the learner the best chance of learning from context. Bliu Bliu does something similar with spoken and video content.
“All we need is a dictionary and an index of sites with target language content to get going,” explains Dr. Jan Ihmels, Lingua.ly’s co-founder. “That means we can take a list of seminal websites with content in, say, Latvian or Belarusian, and feed them into our platform to effectively offer a start-to-finish language learning course refreshed every time new content is published and available free for anyone wanting to study these less commonly taught languages.”
Bliu Bliu and Lingua.lyare adaptive platforms that embody the comprehensible input approach and teach language via exposure to real online content. Ihmels explains that while they’ve only indexed five languages so far, as the demand for more grows, so will Lingua.ly. With a larger community of Latvian learners, one can only imagine future opportunities for written and spoken language practice to expand the language’s available content and strengthen its digital footprint.
One thing is for sure, as the world becomes ever more digitized, helping languages and cultures gain an online presence should be a global priority along with more traditional language preservation efforts.
About the Author: Meredith Cicerchia; Twitter @Merelanguage
Meredith is a linguist and polyglot who has spent the last seven years working across the language learning industry in various roles from teaching to curriculum development and teacher-training. In her previous position, Meredith managed the special projects team at Education First where she led development of the EFSET, the world’s first free standardized adaptive assessment tool and platform. She holds an M.Sc in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford and a B.A. in French language and literature from Georgetown University.
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