In Latvia, where I live, 95% of the population is bilingual and 54% speak at least three languages. This gives Latvia the second-highest rate of bilingualism in all of Europe, and makes the country one of only eight EU member states where the majority of citizens are trilingual – a long-term EU objective, also reached by Lithuania and Estonia.
Though we are great proponents of multilingualism, Baltic citizens hold their mother languages closest to their hearts. Language is bound to our identity as a people. It is the language of our poetry, our folk hymns and our song festivals.
If you ask most Baltic professionals which language they use at work, however, you will get a different story. More often than not, multilingual Balts will say they start to use a larger proportion of English words when explaining the technical aspects of their trade, mixing in English terminology with their mother language. English is increasingly becoming the language of the boardroom, the product presentation, and professional shop talk, effectively tipping the linguistic scales.
The languages of the Baltics are not ill-equipped to "talk shop" because of some inherent linguistic deficiencies. They are among the richest languages in the world, with a grammar that comes pre-equipped for flexibility and expressiveness. Estonian, for example, has 14 noun cases, while Latvian has a dizzying array of two-letter prefixes that convey subtle changes in meaning to almost any noun or verb.
But it is true that smaller languages are not being given a chance to evolve and keep up to speed in the digital age, because larger languages – particularly English, with between 30-50% of online content, and increasingly Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic – have become the dominant languages of the digital universe, squeezing out smaller languages along the way.
The domination of the internet by a handful of larger languages means that they have become our default domains for talking about technology, software, and business – the great muses of the modern day. As a result, we're having a harder time discussing these subjects in our mother tongue, which has been relegated to our private lives.
Recent studies have shown that the Baltics are not alone; according to a recent report from Meta-Net, a network of research centres investigating the effect of technology on language, as many as 21 European languages are at risk of digital extinction. It looks like the grim reaper will come armed with an iPhone instead of a scythe.
This threat of digital extinction for smaller languages will become even more acute as the internet – and the larger languages that it rode in on – extends into every aspect of our lives, dictating how we speak and think. Smartphones, tablets, mobile apps and social media all increase the reach of the digital universe, accompanying us from the second we wake up (and check the news and our email) to the last moment before we sleep (one final scroll through our Twitter feeds).
How can we reverse this trend for the European languages at risk? The answer seems to lie not in more stringent language policy – for politics has always proven to be ineffective at telling people what or how to speak – but in the technological tools that support our languages today.
In order to tend to the continued development of our languages, we must continue to create technologies that provide smaller languages with the same support enjoyed by larger ones. Desktop proofing tools, multilingual apps and interfaces, online encyclopedias and other digital resources – these are all essential tools that can bolster smaller languages in the digital age.
Another innovation that can help strengthen smaller languages is machine translation. Though generic services like Google Translate fail to serve smaller languages, specialised machine translation platforms allow users to build their own customised systems for any language combination. In the Baltics, we've created a machine translation system for our languages that performs better than Google Translate. Other smaller languages can do the same.
New language technologies present an important way in which we can enable smaller languages in the linguistically diverse digital age, helping them be heard around the world. With these technologies, we can ensure the survival of small languages such as Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian – and the many, many other global languages currently at risk of digital extinction – making sure they continue to thrive well into the multilingual future.
Kalniņš, Rihards. 2014. “At risk of digital extinction: Europe's smaller languages fight to survive”. The Guardian. Posted: March 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/mar/26/digital-extinction-europe-languages-fight-survive