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Linguistic Diversity

Towards a Notion of “Digital Language Diversity”

2. Linguistic Diversity

Claudia SORIA Researcher, National Research Council

(Pisa, Italy)

for a more peaceful and harmonized world. Western people have interiorised their own monolingualism, based on the nation-state philosophical concept and political incarnation, and tend to make the monolingual regime appear the main linguistic experience of the world. At the same time, monolingualism is believed to be a guarantee of a functioning world order, and a modernizing force. Modifying this view is extremely difficult, since language lies at the heart of identity building, personal as well as national (of an individual as well as of a nation): asserting the equal value of different languages is a narcissistic wound and questions the political relationships.

The monolingual mindset stands in sharp contrast to the lived reality of most of the world, which throughout its history has been more multilingual than unilingual. Linguistic diversity, not monolingualism, is the normal, natural condition of the relationship of humankind with its surrounding environment.

Language diversity is the human response to the variability of natural environment, and in places where the density of different languages is very high, such as Papua New Guinea, Central America, Africa and the Far East, it is absolutely normal for people to speak several languages. The variety of the ways in which human beings have adapted and responded to the various climates and challenges is uniquely embodied in languages. As such, it represents an important guide to understanding the interactions of humans with nature. The parallelism with biodiversity has repeatedly been made: it appears that those places with high species diversity (tropical forests in particular) tend to show high linguistic diversity, while areas low in species diversity, such as deserts and tundra, also show low linguistic diversity [Loh and Harmon 2014; Nettle and Romaine 2000; Loh and Harmon 2005]. But there are more similarities between linguistic and biological diversity besides their distribution: both are facing an extinction crisis, and both crises are consequences of similar processes. Exactly as it happens for biodiversity, language diversity is severely endangered, in some places more than in others [Loh and Harmon 2014; Harmon and Loh 2010]. According to Sutherland [2003], the loss of languages goes at a faster pace than the loss of species. The reasons behind the loss of linguistic diversity are mostly concerned with social or economic issues (commerce, migration, globalization of trade and media, but also unfavourable national policies and the prestige associated with one or more dominant languages); more rarely they are associated with natural phenomena such as a population’s extinction.

2.1. Protection of Linguistic Diversity

Exactly like biodiversity, linguistic diversity is a heritage to be preserved by all means, not a problem to be eradicated. Strangely enough, people – at least western people – tend to recognize the value of biodiversity much more

than they do for linguistic diversity. They may be keen on protecting whales and wolves from extinction, but could not care less if the language of their grandparents will disappear by the next generation. If we believe that language diversity is a value, we need to support it as our collective responsibility towards humankind. Languages are the living archive of human experience: a monument of the peculiarly human way of forming societies, communicating, and transmitting experience.

David K. Harrison, a linguist and advocate of linguistic diversity, expresses this view in a very powerful way: “What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know – which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may some day save us. We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let’s listen while we still can.” [Harrison, 2010].

If we think that remote languages and cultures cannot teach us anything, simply because they have never seen a mobile, we are just wrong. Humans have spent centuries in close interaction with often extremely harsh and demanding environments, and their languages encode knowledge that might turn useful, someday or another: knowledge of surviving techniques, of plants, animals, and crops, preparation and uses of medicinal food, traditional methods of farming, fishing and hunting, not to mention traditional methods of land use and resource management. We cannot afford to lose this enormous wealth of knowledge that was accumulated over the centuries. Let’s listen while we still can.

2.2. Sustainment of Linguistic Diversity in the Digital World

In order to establish a sustainable policy for safeguarding and promoting linguistic diversity, the digital world cannot be ignored any longer. As Mark Turin aptly says, “in our digital age, the keyboard, screen and web will play a decisive role in shaping the future linguistic diversity of our species” [Turin 2013]. Languages are living entities that need to be used on a daily basis by humans in order to survive.

With so much of our lives happening on the Internet and through digital devices, the digital space represents a context that cannot be ignored. Speakers of major languages can access apparently unlimited amounts of Web content, easily perform searches, interact, communicate through social media and voice-based applications. They can enjoy interactive e-books, have fun with word games for mobiles, engage in multi-player videogames, or take advantage from innovative language learning facilities for other widely spoken languages.

On the other hand, speakers of minority languages cannot benefit of any similar facility. So called “smaller” languages do not enjoy the same range of opportunities. Welsh speakers were denied the publication of e-books in Welsh over Amazon’s Kindle platform, because of lack of available Welsh electronic dictionaries. There is no Wikipedia for Mansi; speakers of Saami or Tongva have no localized interface for Facebook, and there is no Google translation for Sardinian, or Igbo, or Frisian. This inequality of digital opportunities further discriminates minority languages, by relegating them once more to the realm of family communication and restricted topics. Minority languages, instead, need to get access to all contexts of life to be perceived as vibrant and fully apt languages. Presence of a language on the Internet is of paramount importance for the impact it has on its speakers, especially the young generation. We must ensure, therefore, that the range of usage opportunities for all languages is increased and enlarged. Multilingualism cannot be truly and effectively enforced if all languages are not put in the conditions to act digitally. Empowering all languages, regional and minority ones in particular, with instruments that put them on a par with more widely spoken languages, is a matter of equal digital opportunities for the speakers of those languages. Digital Language Diversity needs to be sustained.