As a child, I can remember when the Catholic Church performed its mass in Latin. At the time, Latin was also offered, at least in parochial school, as an elective in foreign language studies. Since that time, however, Latin has basically been delegated to the ancient languages category that is only offered in specialized fields of study.
However, when this was occurring, I didn’t think much more about it aside from how wonderful it was that I didn’t have to learn something I would never use. Today, however, I can see some modern languages also dying as the Internet creates an arena that does not encompass some 60 or so different languages, or dialects, specific to certain regions of the world. This scenario is even more likely as Web providers, like Google and Siri, begin to offer more and more services intended to translate webpage data for the reader into a vast variety of popular languages, such as English. In fact, one can even find sites that offer translation services controlled through speech command.
Which languages are threatened? In a recent report from the European organization META (Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance), soon-to-be extinct languages could include Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, and surprisingly, could even include German, Italian, Spanish, and French in the future.
META also took a hard look at language technologies, including software, that were specific to a limited number of languages such as:
- Spell check
- Grammar check
- Siri, Robin, and other voice-to-speech applications
- Navigation systems
- Google Translate
Using these features, META found that some languages, such as Icelandic with only approximately 300,000 users, were not supported. In fact, META’s research concluded that there is an ever-widening rift between languages that are commonly used on the Internet and those that are smaller and used less frequently online. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the report also concluded that by the year 2015, Chinese would replace English as the dominant language on the Internet.
However, the Internet is not the only factor in languages dying. The fact is that the European Union has, for the most part, lifted its interlocking boundaries with fellow Union members and now they share a common currency. This open access between the European countries has allowed a free exchange of goods and services, but is still hampered by one glaring difference: the barrier of language. To make trade and communication easier, some in Europe are proposing a common language, but many countries in the European Union have been vocal in opposing this proposal.
Being of Italian heritage, I can understand the reluctance to accept a common language that would eliminate some of the cultural differences between countries. Each of the regions in Europe is unique and proud of who they are. Besides that, change is hard as was shown in the United States when it made an effort to convert over to the metric system. This changeover supposedly began decades ago, but met with such resistance that it still has not completely replaced the older standard US system that uses inches and feet. To prove this, I only need to look inside of my tool cabinet to be reminded that I own both SAE and metric-designed tools. In fact, one of the tools I bought just last year was a Sears wrench designed to fit both SAE and metric bolts.
Going back a little, you might ask why I suggest that the Chinese language may become the primary language of use on the Internet. First, remember that many of our technology companies have moved to China and that the Chinese are majority stockholders in many other new and upcoming companies. With that being said, a recent UN report on broadband use stated that by the year 2015, the majority of users on the Internet would be Chinese.
Does this mean that English could eventually become a dying language? I don’t have an answer to that, but then I am sure that the people of Latvia and Iceland didn’t believe, just a century ago, that they would ever have to teach their children a different primary language. How many foreign language sites do you visit in a day? Are you helping to kill these less frequently used languages? Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by Vectorportal