The lesser spotted language
Human language technologies empower speakers of minority and endangered languages, facilitating their use online.
The Internet has drastically changed the way people communicate, how they organise their lives and how they use language.
With its wide reach, the Internet has the potential to encourage the use, spread and development of minority and/or endangered languages. However, any attempt to save a minority language or promote its use on the Internet is bound to come up against a number of hurdles, including the digital divide as well as the expense and effort required to prepare a language, in terms of hardware and software, for use on the Internet.
Daniel Prado, executive secretary of the Maaya World Network for Linguistic Diversity, notes that while the Internet has become a tool of daily life for urban populations in industrialised countries, it remains internationally inaccessible to five out of seven individuals. He points out that more than five billion people lacked Internet access at the end of 2010 and that distribution itself is uneven - at most, 10% of Africans are connected, compared to 25% of Asians, 80% of North Americans and 65% of Europeans.
According to Unesco, nearly half of the world's 6 000 languages could disappear by the end of the century. The crux of language disappearance lies in a decrease in speaker numbers - 50% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10 000 individuals.
Linguist David Crystal has noted that an endangered language will progress if its speakers can make use of electronic technology, and that the Internet has a particularly important role to play in the future of minority languages. However, any discussion on Internet media must be grounded in the realities of access and use, as access to the Internet is far from universal and is far down the list of priorities for many communities.
Although the demographics are changing, English has been the dominant language of the Internet since its conception. Daniel Cunliffe, who has conducted extensive research on minority languages, points out that where sufficient online content exists, national languages appear robust in resisting English. However, even if there is sufficient minority language content on the Internet, the software used to create that content is often in English or another majority language, implicitly reinforcing the dominant status of these languages.
According to Prado, a globalisation process is amplifying language extinction, and this extinction rate is only increasing in the information age as the ICT industry promotes the better equipped or more prestigious languages to the detriment of others. This means speakers will gradually lean towards the language that allows them the widest range of expression.
An endangered language will progress if its speakers can make use of electronic technology.
However, according to Crystal, the Internet offers a home to all languages - as soon as their communities have an electricity supply and functioning computer technology. He further notes that Africa has an extremely high percentage of mobile subscribers and is also the region with the highest mobile growth rate. With access to the Internet via mobile phones being one of the major growth areas, this could greatly alter the linguistic scenario of the Internet.
However, African languages remain poorly represented. Prado notes that, in a sample of 1 374 African sites, only 3.22% used an African language as the language of communication.
The economics of Internet technology development and use disfavours linguistic diversity.
Sociolinguist Maik Gibson highlights the potential of mobile phones in language-revitalisation efforts. He points to the increased penetration of mobile phones into regions such as Kenya, along with the reduction of the price of phones that are Internet-capable. Because of this, Gibson notes, Internet access is no longer dependent on a constant electricity supply or broadband cables, which could possibly allow developing nations to leapfrog infrastructure hurdles.
The Internet is historically an American technology, modelled on English standards and, as a result, many languages with few speakers are not well represented, if at all.
According to John Paolillo, an associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, large languages, like Chinese Mandarin, French, German and Spanish, are well served with their own standard character encodings, fonts, keyboards and computer operating systems.
Other languages that employ a Roman alphabet may piggyback off these resources. However, languages that do not have these resources lack effective encoding skills and, therefore, are hampered in their use of Internet technology. Adapting these technologies or formulating new technologies for under-served languages is an incredibly complex, time-consuming and expensive task. "The economics of Internet technology development and use disfavours linguistic diversity," says Paolillo.
Cunliffe notes that, in the past, legacy software was unable to represent non-Latin characters on the Internet, and while modern standards are able to represent a much wider range of characters, often, minority language communities will only have access to older technology, which is less able to support their languages. In many cases, users will adapt their language to suit the available technology rather than wait for the development of technology able to support their languages. People's desire to use technology, he suggests, can drive them to find solutions that overcome the technical barriers to using their languages online.
According to Cunliffe, the Internet is still predominantly a textual medium, so where a language has no written form, a limited literary tradition or low levels of literacy, the Internet may further marginalise minority languages. The multimedia capabilities of the Internet offer some possibilities for languages in these situations, and in particular, provide languages without a written form as an alternative to reduction in text. According to Prado, IP telephony, digital radio and television, audio and video downloads, video hosting sites and streaming are now a part of everyday life, allowing all forms of communication to employ electronic channels previously reserved for writing.
Researchers Mikami Yoshiki and Shigeaki Kodama propose the 'localisation problem' as the difficulty of producing technology in regional languages. They suggest technologies do not evenly benefit all language communities, creating the possibility for a 'digital language divide'.
The Universal Coded Character Set, the international standard on character code for information interchange, does not include the entirety of character sets used by humankind, meaning most languages cannot be catered for and cannot be used on the Internet.
Tech, gamification, crowdsourcing
Crystal notes that Internet-based media are expected to play an important role in the future of minority languages, pointing to Unesco predictions that there will be more minority language material produced on the Internet than in traditional print or audiovisual forms.
Language technologies, such as machine-facilitated translation, allow people to express themselves in their own languages and enable communication. However, Prado notes that only 1% of the world's languages have an automated translation system at their disposal, and only around 50 languages possess a sufficient number of translated texts. Current technologies are only able to give basic translations and are not yet at the point where they could successfully translate, for example, literary works.
Gamification, or the integration of game dynamics into, in this case, a Web site to enhance participation and learning, is also gaining popularity when it comes to language learning. One such site, Memrise, "uses images and science to make learning languages child's play". The site offers 220 language courses that facilitate language learning through online games. While a lot of these courses are for more mainstream languages like English, Spanish and German, it does include some minority languages and even one South African indigenous language - Xhosa.
Crowdsourcing appears to be a popular way to encourage people to use indigenous languages more and help raise awareness. Crowdsourcing is a form of outsourcing - large tasks (such as translation) are outsourced to a group of people in an open call. Crowdsourcing is usually voluntary and is an unpaid, collective effort. In the case of language translation, participants could be attracted by the opportunity to use their indigenous languages and raise awareness of them.
The Holy Grail?
According to Unicef's Gerrit Beger and Akshay Sinha, South Africans lead as the highest users of mobile technology on the continent, and 72% of South African youth aged 15 to 24 have a cellphone. Furthermore, the country boasts a 100.48% mobile penetration rate, making it safe to assume that all South Africans have access to mobile technology - if they don't personally own a cellphone, they more than likely have access to a friend or relative's cellphone.
An issue, however, is that smartphone penetration is relatively low in SA, with the majority of the population using basic feature phones. Speaking at last year's Popular Mechanics FutureTech event, Alan Knott-Craig Jnr suggested that about 13% of all phones in SA are smartphones, with the rest being feature or "dumb" phones. Some of these may not be able to access the Internet and they certainly do not accommodate smart applications, which could benefit language learning tremendously in terms of content provision and facilitating interaction.
Hardware and software issues may also stifle the full potential of mobile, so what is needed are "smart apps for dumb phones", says Knott-Craig Jnr. These apps must have low bandwidth requirements so they are relatively inexpensive to operate, and should facilitate cheap communication.
According to Beger and Sinha, most technological advancements in SA have taken place in the mobile sphere, leading to a significant rise in mobile ownership and usage. However, SA continues to struggle with a significant lag in both the expansion of ICT infrastructure and ownership of computers and access to Internet.
Where to from here?
If online language initiatives attract support from minority language speakers as well as the broader Internet audience, there can be little doubt of their success, given the infinite amount of people who are active on the Internet.
A lot of work is needed, however. Until minority languages have sufficient computer technology and communication infrastructure, they will remain disconnected, as will their speakers. There may still be hope for languages that do not have a writing system, as the Internet and ICTs offer other opportunities for language cultivation, through, for example, video and audio formats.
However, infrastructure development needs institutional and corporate backing. It requires immense funding, time and effort to develop infrastructure that will support minority languages, but it appears this is still not, and will not be, top of the official agenda for some time. Until it is, it may be up to the speakers themselves to protect their languages and the cultures and traditions inherent in them. And the Internet offers the ideal platform for that.