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The Digital World and the Rise of the New Kind of Language

The Digital World and the Rise of the New Kind of Language
on August, 17 2016

If you’re sitting beside an Arab person in a Middle Eastern Internet café, to your surprise, despite not knowing any Arabic, you’d likely be able to read the letters on his screen.

Many young people there not only write in English, they frequently email and text in Arabic using the Roman alphabet in a process known as transliteration.  For example, they’d typically write “mabrook” (which translates to congratulations) instead of مبروك. And frequently, transliterations appear on shop signs in Middle Eastern cities like Amman and Cairo.

Like cursive writing in the United States, it seems the use of Arabic character script is on the decline. Elsewhere, with languages ranging from Spanish to Burmese to Hindi, digitalization has wreaked havoc on proper grammar and punctuation while giving birth to legitimate words such as “cyberbullying,” “selfie” and “crowdfunding.” 

A New Kind of Language

Many scholars and nonprofits study and protect the world’s diversity in languages. They do their best to preserve languages with increasingly fewer native speakers, and work hard to add to the record of languages while keeping them from going extinct. 

However, the example of Arabic teens writing using the Roman alphabet begs the question: how many native languages exist on phones and computers? How many don’t exist on the Internet at all?

Andras Kornai, a math-based linguist from Hungary, wrote a research paper on the topic in 2013. He concluded that Arabic’s digital future is “safe” but that thousands of other languages will fail to exist digitally.

With 96% of the globe’s 7,000+ languages not appearing on mobile phones, tablets and computers, the Internet stands to be the great extinction leveler, he contends, not unlike the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The Evolution and Extinction of Languages

“Evolution” is defined as the process whereby something changes into a usually more complex or better form and can refer to anything such as sport to biology. But when linguists talk of language evolution, they point to languages parenting distinct branches, which then compete for usage. Sometimes, they die out. 

To keep track of languages that still exist, the UNESCO updates a database of threatened and extinct languages that is similar to the List of Endangered Species. According to the world body, if only the generation of our grandparents communicate in a language, it is under threat. If none of the language’s speakers are alive, the language is deemed extinct.   

An extinct language’s fate is different from that of Latin – a language that scores of people study today. A dead language is simply not spoken nor largely studied. And in the same way environmentalists are trying to protect the Florida manatee from dying out, linguists painstakingly record the relevant endangered language, train language teachers and create teaching materials in the threatened language.

Scholars who work with endangered languages have pinpointed a couple of warning signs: when a dominant language like Spanish or English replaces an indigenous language in a specific vital field like literature or business; and when an indigenous language is considered old-fashioned by the young. 

As a result, the language starts disappearing with each upcoming generation until it goes extinct.

Surviving the Jump Online

Andras Kornai explores dead languages online in his paper “Digital Language Death.”

Because linguists are trying to revitalize dying languages, when it comes to the digital platform, can these be made to thrive digitally? Would it be possible for a non-digital language to be communicated on the Internet? Can people become digital natives using that language? 

Over 7,000 languages exist in the world, and Kornai measured each language’s presence online by crawling public text online and counting the number of articles on Wikipedia for each language. 

A language officially still exists if a couple of people is speaking the language somewhere but when it comes to a digital language, a supporting infrastructure has to exist to sustain it. So Kornai analyzed the availability of software support for each language, from spell checkers to Apple support to its existence in the Unicode standard that are accessed by digital devices for language recognition. 

Kornai concludes that nearly half of languages (2,500 to 3,500) are severely endangered in the world today and that at most only 10% of all languages are “secure.” The digital online world, however, is a much more inhospitable place – 96% of all languages are deemed “dead on the Internet.” Borderline cases of digital languages, existent only as a result of the efforts of archivists and scholars, constitute 2% of total languages online.

In total, only 2% of all languages dominate the online landscape.

Digital Death and Birth

In 2008, when media expert Ethan Zuckerman launched Global Voices, an online publication of stories written by journalists from around the world, he released it only in English, assuming that that language would be enough for everyone to read it. 

The global community soon proved him wrong. Taiwanese students started translating the stories into Taiwanese and soon founded a Taiwanese version of Global Voices where original articles in Taiwanese were being published. Other language speakers followed suit and branched into their own version of the site, including a Global Voices existing in Malagasy, a Madagascan language.

Kornai had expressed pessimism about digitally dead languages ever crossing over into the Internet when he declared 96% of all languages being digitally dead. Not only do they run against high barriers to entry, tech companies determine which languages become digital through the creation of spellcheckers and language software. Until such software exists, only academics and translation companies could ever manually work with such digitally dead languages.

You’re not necessarily an imperialist if you think the current digital landscape is just fine the way it is. A small minority of languages dominating the Internet could bring people together in a way that is opposite to the days of the Tower of Babel. Language conservationists at the UNESCO, however, believe that each language resonates with a unique cultural complex and worldview. When a language dies permanently, “an irretrievable unit in our understanding of a human view of the world is lost forever.”

While the Internet may be the great extinction leveler of many languages, the case of Global Voices truly becoming more global indicates that languages are more resilient than even Kornai imagined. Zuckerman himself explained that Global Voice’s Malagasy contributors worked hard to convert their Malagasy articles from an analog format to digital in order “to make the leap” to the online world.   

With work and focus, it is possible to grant an online presence to the remaining 96% of languages that have yet to appear on the Internet. Maybe part of the solution is to have more of these speakers work in programming so that they can develop and contribute their own language-supporting software to the digital world.

The New Languages of Coding

The Internet and the digital world itself are themselves built upon languages – digital programming languages. There are many that would contend that programming is the global language, more common than spoken languages like Chinese, English or Spanish, which may be true when one takes into account the amount of programming going into sustaining the Internet, software and mobile apps.

Seen as relating to expanded communication abilities, enhanced global awareness and perspective-taking, programming languages are making their mark as human languages in their own right. In high schools across the United States, coding is being counted as fulfilling the “new foreign language” requirement. This is because even educators are seeing striking similarities between a natural human language and a programming language.

Coding’s Merits as a Language

Language study grants several cognitive advantages; in learning a system of symbols, signs and rules for communication purposes, it compels the brain to negotiate and recognize meanings and master different language patterns, and improves thinking. Programming also does this.

People who speak more than one language are better multi-taskers because they can switch between language structures. Programming also entails understanding and working within structures.

Having to remember rules and vocabulary exercises the head and sharpens overall memory. This explains why multilingual people are especially good at memory recall. Programming, likewise, is based on specific rules and vocabulary.

Perception is heightened when one learns a language. Multilingual people are better at evaluating their surroundings and on focusing on important information while dismissing information that is not as important. Likewise, programming critically depends on creating tight code that works while eliminating bugs.

Foreign language teachers today always emphasize practical communication in a day-to-day setting. Similarly, programming is practical and vital as it applies to daily living in the 21st century today. In fact, there is a huge demand for computer programmers in the world today with jobs in the sector growing at twice the global average, reports

Why Learning to Code is Beneficial

The hungry job market is reason enough as to why people should start to learn code. Moreover, coding is ubiquitous and empowers its students to control (not just consume) digital technology.

By taking the mystery out of technology, these digital languages deserve a place at the table of human languages. Although 96% of all languages don’t exist in the digital world, programming languages technically now count as dominant mainstream languages, but with one big difference – “digitally dead” language speakers can learn how to code in order to introduce their languages to the digital world. 

Learning coding can therefore, only be a good thing. Coding can breathe new life into a digitally dead language and make the Internet a much more enriched place, which is another excellent reason students everywhere should have the option to study coding as a foreign language. While a programming language may never replace a natural human language; it can very much aid in its propagation moving into the future.

Image credit: iunewind / 123RF

Denise Recalde

Denise Recalde is a Senior Content Writer at Day Translations. A seasoned writer and editor with eleven years of experience under her belt, she is a bonafide wordsmith who loves playing with the written word creatively and always takes care to lend a certain hue of snap and color to her drafts. Always one to rise up to challenges, she has traveled to 14 countries and has worked on a smorgasbord of writing projects that spanned several industries, from finance to health to beauty and fashion.

  • Sean Patrick Hopwood

    Excellent Article.

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