9 April 2014, 15:16

Five percent of 7,000 languages spoken today will disappear thanks to Internet - survey

Five percent of 7,000 languages spoken today will disappear thanks to Internet - survey

The internet will kill less than five percent of the 7,000 languages spoken today says a paper titled "Digital Language Death," just published in PLOS One. 

The Endangered Languages Project reports that "the pace at which languages are disappearing today has no precedent and is alarming." András Kornai, author of the new paper, blames the internet.

According to the UNESCO page on endangered languages, "a language disappears when its speakers disappear or when they shift to speaking another language—most often, a larger language used by a more powerful group. Languages are threatened by external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or by internal forces such as a community's negative attitude towards its own language." Both of these forces, Kornai argues, are exacerbated by the internet, motherboard.com writes.

The signs of imminent death for a language are a loss of function, where other languages take over entire functional areas such as commerce; a loss of prestige, as the young lose interest in learning and using the language; and finally a loss of competence, wherein a generation can maybe understand their elders, but don't really speak the language themselves.

The great flat, globalized world of the internet operates pretty much as a monoculture, Kornai says. Only about 250 languages can be called well-established online, and another 140 are borderline. Of the 7,000 languages still alive, perhaps 2,500 will survive, in the classical sense, for another century, and many fewer will make it on to the internet, he claims.

He illustrates his point saying that if you want to do business online, it's more than likely going to be in English, the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish), the CJK languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), and "the main languages of former colonial empires" (Dutch, Russian, Portuguese). That's the loss of function happening for the languages with fewer speakers or less representation online. But aside from the 250 digital survivors, all others are drifting towards something Kornai calls "digital heritage status," where material is available for research and documentation purposes, but the language is not used by native speakers online.

Ross Perlin, writing at Al Jazeera America, explained that much of the internet's linguistic exclusion comes back to the fact that a lot of it is written. "The language database Ethnologue estimates that 3,535 of the world's 7,105 living languages have no writing system whatsoever," he said. And with 96 percent of the world's languages spoken by just 4 percent, many voices get drowned out, as there are fewer than 10,000 people who speak that language. The trend is the old and the new clash – the net language is pushing the "written language" off by blurring border between one's own language and those of others and making people careless of the words they use, writes Asahi Shimbun on Vox Populi, Vox Dei popular daily column . And cognitive neuroscientists are also alarmed. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing," said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain .

Wolf points out that she sends emails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.

"How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?" she said. "My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?"

If the rise of non-stop pay TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the internet, Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online – on desktop and mobile devices – is expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for US adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behaviour. That's up from three hours in 2010.

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading and expressing concern that young children's affinity and often mastery of their parents' devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all – scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies, Brisbane Times writes.

"We're spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you," said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. "We're in this new era of information behaviour, and we're beginning to see the consequences of that."

Several English department chairs from around the country have emailed researchers to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.

"They cannot read Middlemarch . They cannot read William James or Henry James," Wolf said. "I can't tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James."

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading and potential for a bi-literate brain.

"We can't turn back," Wolf said. "We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It's both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?"

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