When talking about dying languages, we normally picture lost tribes deep within the amazon rainforest and remote villages that survive in the great savannahs of the African subcontinent as the last remaining bastions of ancient languages on the verge of extinction. While these scenarios are undoubtedly a reality, the digital age and its almost absolute use of English is already threatening languages spoken by millions of people which until a few years ago seemed to be in perfectly safe hands.
The need to learn English as a second language has gone from being a choice merely a few decades ago, to a total necessity in the digital age in which its use is almost overwhelming. Any international interaction will likely be conducted in English, and the vast majority of cultural, technologic, and scientific output tends to be created first in English, and then translated into other major languages if deemed necessary.
This situation, while immensely practical in its own way, has chipped away at the use of local languages in favor of English. According to META-NET, a European network of excellence that consists of 60 research centers in 34 countries, as many as 21 languages in Europe are in danger of digital extinction. If no measures are put in place to preserve these immensely important parts of our cultural heritage, and there is no concerted effort to future-proof the use of these languages in the digital age, they are at risk of being phased out of use at an alarming speed.
In an ironic twist of fate, the languages of nations that adopted multilingualism and the introduction of English into their education system early on, are the ones which have become most threatened. Icelandic school teachers are reporting that the use of English in the playground is becoming the norm rather than the exception, and the same goes for Scandinavian languages, which are progressively being phased out by a more practical English language that the natives are very accustomed to.
Other smaller languages like Catalan, already somewhat threatened by the use of Spanish throughout the country, are also being flanked by English as it slowly makes its way into media, products, and the large majority of information available online.
Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy fix for this situation. Education systems across the world are slowly shifting from a traditional approach that consisted of teaching certain subjects that had been staples for decades, to a more student-tailored and practical angle that offers more usable skills in the real world of today. This change can easily lead to less used languages, even if they are native to the countries in question, being phased out of the school calendar a few years from now.
Governmental attempts to breathe life into languages are also complicated by the fact that linguistic boundaries are not necessarily consistent with geopolitical boundaries, often leading to complications regarding the efforts and the way in which they are applied.
As complex as it may be, the solution seems to be a collaboration that spans the highest offices in government, to the day to day users of these languages at risk of disappearance. From universities to schools, from software developers to translators, from teachers to entrepreneurs, it will require a nation-wide effort to keep these languages afloat in the face of the universal tool that English has become.
Perhaps the same digital world that has benefited so much from the use of English will be the one to find a solution that enables the preservation of all these languages across the global network. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.