Europe must protect its rich tapestry of languages

The digital age presents serious problems for Europe’s languages, writes Jill Evans.

Jill Evans | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Jill Evans

26 Sep 2018

Every two weeks a language dies. Unesco estimates that around half of the world’s languages will become extinct by the year 2100. When a language dies, a culture dies with it, because language is much more than a communication tool. Every language has a different way of expressing how the world works, so when a language dies, a unique perspective on the world disappears with it.

A Welsh proverb that best expresses this sentiment is “cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon” - “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart”. Languages are threatened by globalisation, persecution, short-sighted language policies and economic factors, all of which can lead to a language’s extinction.

We usually associate countries such as Brazil, India, Australia and Mexico with endangered languages; countries with many oral indigenous languages that may not yet even be recorded. In Europe, we might think of Cornish, Breton, Kashubian or Sami languages.


However, the digital age presents much wider problems for Europe’s languages. Research from METANET, a network of language technology research centres, show that as many as 21 European languages are at risk of digital extinction. 

This already is happening to many EU official languages, while official majority languages are at risk of becoming endangered minority languages in the digital world. This is despite linguistic diversity being enshrined in Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

While a language is at the heart of a nation, linguistic diversity is at the heart of the EU. A key element of European identity would be lost if we lose the Union’s rich tapestry of languages.

This is an issue for all of us in Europe, because the digital world is no longer distinct from the ‘real world’. The internet now pervades every aspect of our lives, influencing how we speak and think. Many of us rely on virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, which are only available in a handful of languages. 

If speakers of lesser-used languages are unable to access those services in their own languages, they will naturally opt for one of the giant languages that currently dominate the internet. My worry is that when children grow up in a digital world unavailable in their own languages, we will see accelerated language shifts in the ‘real world’.

How can we reverse this trend for European languages? I believe that the European Union can show leadership to ensure that more people are able to use new technologies such as virtual assistants, speech recognition, text-to-speech and intelligent linguistic systems in their own languages in the future. I believe that policies must be developed to address this problem and to prepare for the future. The European Parliament overwhelmingly agreed with me on this in plenary earlier this month.

One way of raising the profile of language technologies in Europe would be to allocate the area of ‘multilingualism and language technology’ to the portfolio of a Commissioner. That person would be tasked with promoting linguistic diversity and equality at EU level. This would demonstrate a clear commitment from the Commission that it will give priority to the issue.

I also called for a large-scale, long-term coordinated funding programme for research, development and innovation in language technologies, aimed at closing the technology gap between European languages. 

A flagship EU-funded project would hugely benefit speakers of Europe’s smaller languages, while providing a positive knock-on effect on the technology’s impact on Europe’s economy and society. Education policies also need to be improved to ensure the next generation of Europeans lead the way in the field of language technologies.

The Commission and member states should promote the use of language technologies within cultural and educational exchanges between European citizens such as Erasmus+. This could greatly improve European cohesion by reducing the barriers that linguistic diversity can present to intercultural dialogue.

There are opportunities here too for private companies and public bodies. Using existing free and open-source language technology - such as machine translation, speech recognition and text-to-speech and intelligent linguistic systems - would help those European citizens living in a different member state, who may not be fluent enough in the local language to deal with essential administration.

Businesses, particularly SMEs, could trade cross-border far more easily with language technologies, avoiding many of the language barriers they currently face. It would also help businesses, notably SMEs, to trade cross-border, as language barriers currently hinder selling cross-border, as evidenced in the low level of trade.

This is a huge opportunity for the EU to demonstrate a real commitment to language equality, for the speakers of all of Europe’s languages, including minority languages such as Welsh. The EU can be a world leader in this field, but it takes political will. The result in the European Parliament shows that this political will is there.


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