Languages in times of digital revolution

India is one of the unique countries that have the legacy of diversity of languages. The Constitution has recognised 22 official languages. Multilingualism is the way of life as people often speak more than one language from their birth and learn additional languages during their life time.

Officially there are 122 languages. However, Peoples Linguistic Survey of India – a peoples initiative led by barefoot linguists – has identified 780 languages, of which 50 are extinct in the past five decades. According to Ethnologue, an organisation studying
languages across the world, India is home to 461 languages, of which 14 have been reported as extinct.

During the colonial rule, the first linguistic survey conducted from 1894 to 1928 by George A Grierson identified 179 languages and 544 dialects.

In 1991, the Census of India listed 1,576 mother tongues with separate grammatical structures and 1,796 speech varieties that are classified as other mother tongues.

Will this diversity be maintained in the context of ongoing digital revolution?

With the spread of information technology (IT) and increasing number of Indians gaining access to internet-based mobile applications, is there any hope for revival of endangered languages? Will the minority languages get their space to ride on the information highway?

Or the languages like English and Hindi overtake them forcing them to make an early exit?
The crowdsourcing and internet connectivity has made it easier to produce materials online. Dissemination and consumption of the minority language has become cheaper than the expensive print material. This has paved way for flourishing language subcultures. The release of numerous language learning applications provides great opportunities to learn new language skills.

Nevertheless the facts
coming out from the analysis of the use of internet by different language groups across the world indicates that the internet is dominated by a few elite languages.

The first language used on the internet was English and by 1990s it made up 90% of the content. However, this pattern is changing faster than expected. The share of French, German, Spanish and Chinese has increased and the share of English has shrunk to 30% in past two decades. The use of Chinese grew by 1,277% in a decade since 2000!
In contrast, out of 6,000 languages that are still alive today, only the top 10%  dominate 82% of the cyberspace! Obviously, the digital divide has widened the existing gap between the dominant and the minority languages in the world.

According to linguists, only 5% of all the living languages are digitally “ascending”. About 250 languages can be called well established online, whereas the remaining 6,700 plus languages remain on the margin, threatened by the digital tsunami.

This divide gets exacerbated as 96% of the known languages are left behind by the digital world. That sets an alarming trend for survival of minority languages. There are problems with those languages that have only oral history without any script.

Oral languages
Inee Slaughter, Executive Director of the Indigenous Language Institute says that “many indigenous languages only exist in oral forms, the digital media is heavily literacy based, and it is not friendly towards indigenous language users”.

In India there are numerous indigenous communities that have the oral language without a script. They will never be able to occupy the digital space.

The theme of United Nations Mother Language Day 2017 is to develop the potential of multilingual education in education, administrative systems, cultural expression and the cyber space.

India already provides support to multilingual education, and the rights of minority languages are secured as fundamental rights under the Constitution. But the mushrooming of  English medium schools  shows the priority of the common man by abandoning the local language.

Ministry of Information and Technology has mandated that all mobile applications to be sold from July 2017 should have access to different Indian languages.

Though this is a proactive policy initiative in support of the local languages, we need to remember that almost 70% of the Indian population is digitally disenfranchised, has no internet connection.

With this reality it will be difficult for the minority languages to ascend the digital realm, being left behind by elite languages that will overtake them on the information highway.

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