Digitalization: Saving Minority Languages from Extinction

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

We live online. Though not physical, online experience takes a substantial part of our existence. In this digital age, we read news, make international purchases, consume media, complete daily work tasks and receive the latest updates of our bank accounts, all through the glowing little screen in front of us.

Little did we think about these questions: In what language do we explore the digital landscape? Do the other languages we speak have an online presence that mirrors their real-world significance?

The answer to the first question is usually English and in Canada, French.  Regrettably, the answer to the second question is frequently a resounding “no.”

As of 2023, over 55 per cent of the internet content is written in English. This percentage is in stark contrast to the fact that only 4.7% of the global population are native English speakers. English’s online dominance exceeds its real-world prevalence by over 11 times, conferring upon it unparalleled authority in numerous international domains, including politics, medicine, science, art, humanities, law, and entertainment. Speakers of other languages, vastly underrepresented, have to view the digital world through the lens of English language and culture and bear to be defined and judged by English logic and values.

The dominance of English language in digital space gives rise to several critical issues.. The most immediate consequence is that critical information in other languages becomes hard to find. During COVID-19, we have seen misinformation and disinformation spreading at an unstoppable speed among private and group chats online because of the scarcity of undistorted information in minority languages from official sources. The lack of presence in online content in minority languages such as academic papers, shopping websites and advertisements also reinforces the stereotype that content written in these languages is of lesser importance and is less credible.

The most devastating impact, however, is that this disproportional representation accelerates the distinction of languages spoken by smaller populations. When public discussions on less serious topics such as hobbies, entertainment, fashion, beauty, travelling and lifestyle are dominated in English, people adapt to the status quo rather than thinking of challenging it. More content in these fields will be created in English, and lesser-spoken languages are further forced back into private conversations until they fully retreat to the domestic realm. Language needs to evolve to keep up with new concepts, trends and technologies in the fast-changing world. When they are relegated to the domestic realm, language death becomes a real threat.

Recognizing the urgency of promoting lesser-spoken languages in the digital sphere, efforts have been made over the past decade. In 2020, the European Parliament announced that “lesser-used languages” including smaller state languages as well as regional and minority languages (RMLs) in Europe are “under serious threat of extinction” due to the lack of online presence. Countries that directly face this emergency made their move one step ahead of this document. Since 2017, Icelandic, among “Europe’s least (digitally) supported languages,” started fighting its way out of the bin next to the extinct Latin and Ancient Greek. In 2021, Iceland introduced apps and devices that could function in its own native language. In 2023, the goal of supporting Icelandic in digital spaces was officially written into its parliamentary resolution. The battle is long but progressing.

Countries that use writing systems other than the Latin alphabet have one extra step to go to make the shift online smoothly. Kazakhstan, for example, has a history of language reformation since the last century, and have been planning to Latinize its alphabet since 2017. Aside from political reasons, the efficiency of digital information distribution was the final straw. In 2023, the Kazakh Ministry of Science and Higher Education developed a draft to “establish modern approaches” in promoting the use of Kazakh language in public life, including government, media, and business.

While speakers of English and other dominant languages of the internet enjoy the effortless convenience of information exchange regardless of time and space, minority language speakers are celebrating and savouring each individual moment when their mother tongue makes a small progress in obtaining long-craved online presence. Whether it’s being supported by Google, Steam, Nintendo, Amazon or any other international distribution platform, these moments are cherished. To keep lesser-spoken languages circulating and alive, localization of international platforms is often the first step that brings these minorities back into the global conversation. The virtual space is advancing, and the ambition of “not leaving one single language behind” ought to become the creed of all who work in and for the language industry.

As a language services provider with over 30 years’ experience in the industry, MCIS provides services in over 350 languages, from languages that are widely-spoken in the world to minority languages that find resources scarce to be find. In 2022, we sponsored scholarships to aspiring interpreters who speak Rohingya, a minority language in Canada with slightly over 1000 speakers, and initiated the first professional Rohingya interpreter testing system in Canada. To learn about MCIS’ translation and localization services, click here: