Tweet, tuít, or giolc? These were the three iterations of a Gaelic version of the word “tweet” that Twitter’s Irish translators debated in 2012. The agonizing choice between an Anglicized spelling, a Gaelic spelling, or the use of the Gaelic word for “tweeting like a bird” stalled the project for an entire year. Finally, a small group of translators made an executive decision to use the Anglicized spelling of “tweet” with Irish grammar. As of April 2015, Gaelic Twitter is online.
Indigenous and under-resourced cultures face a number of obstacles when establishing their languages on the Internet. English, along with a few other languages like Spanish and French, dominates the web. People who speak these languages often take for granted access to social-media sites with agreed-upon vocabularies, built-in translation services, and basic grammar and spell-checkers.
For Gaelic, a minority language spoken by only two to three percent of the Irish population, it can be difficult to access these digital services. And even languages with millions of speakers can lack the resources needed to make the Internet relevant to daily life.
In September of this year, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, an organization established five years ago to monitor the growth and use of the Internet around the world, released its 2015 report on the state of broadband. The report argues that representation of the world's languages online remains one of the major challenges in expanding the Internet to reach the four billion people who don’t yet have access.
At the moment, the Internet only has webpages in about five percent of the world's languages. Even national languages like Hindi and Swahili are used on only .01 percent of the 10 million most popular websites. The majority of the world’s languages lack an online presence that is actually useful.
Ethnologue, a directory of the world’s living languages, has determined that 1,519 out of the 7,100 languages spoken today are in danger of extinction. For these threatened languages, social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which rely primarily on user-generated content, as well as other digital platforms like Google and Wikipedia, have a chance to contribute to their preservation. While the best way to keep a language alive is to speak it, using one’s native language online could help.
The computational linguistics professor Kevin Scannell devotes his time to developing the technical infrastructure—often using open-source software—that can work for multiple languages. He’s worked with more than 40 languages around the world, his efforts part of a larger struggle to promote under-resourced languages. “[The languages] are not part of the world of the Internet or computing,” he says. “We’re trying to change that mindset by providing the tools for people to use.”
One such under-resourced language is Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken by 12 million people, many of whom are in the country of Malawi. According to Edmond Kachale, a programmer who began developing a basic word processor for the language in 2005 and has been working on translating Google search into Chichewa for the last five years, his language doesn’t have sufficient content online. This makes it difficult for its speakers to compete in a digital, globalized world. “Unless a language improves its visibility in the digital world,” he says, “it is heading for extinction.”
In Malawi, over 60 percent of the population lacks Internet access; but Kachale says that “even if there would be free Internet nation-wide, chances are that [Chichewa speakers] may not use it at all because of the language barrier.” The 2015 Broadband Report bears Kachale’s point out. Using the benchmark of 100,000 Wikipedia pages in any given language, it found that only 53 percent of the world’s population has access to sufficient content in their native language to make use of the Internet relevant.
People who can’t use the Internet risk falling behind economically because they can’t take advantage of e-commerce. In Malawi, Facebook has become a key platform for Internet businesses, even though the site has not yet been translated into Chichewa. Instead, users tack-on a work-around browser plug-in, a quick-fix for languages that don’t have official translations for big social-media sites.
In 2014, Facebook added 20 new languages to its site and launched several more this year, bringing it to more than 80 languages. The site also opens up languages for community-based translation. This option is currently available for about 50 languages, including Aymara, an indigenous language spoken mainly in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Though it has approximately 2 million speakers, UNESCO has designated Aymara as “vulnerable.” Beginning in May of 2014, a group of 20 volunteer translators have been chipping away at the 25,000 words used on the site—and the project is on course to be finished by Christmas.
The project is important because it will encourage young people to use their native language. “We are sure when Aymara is available on Facebook as an official language, it will be a source of motivation for Aymara people,” says Elias Quisepe Chura, who manages the translation effort (it happens primarily online, unsurprisingly via a Facebook page).
Ruben Hilari, another member of the translation team, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais, “Aymara is alive. It does not need to be revitalized. It needs to be strengthened and that is exactly what we are doing. If we do not work for our language and culture today, it will be too late tomorrow to remember who we are, and we will always feel insecure about our identity.”
Despite its reputation as the so-called information superhighway, the Internet is only legible to speakers of a few languages; this limit to the web’s accessibility proves that it can be as just as insular and discriminative as the modern world at large.