European Day of Languages: Digital survival of lesser-used languages

Briefing 23-09-2020

Since 2001, Europe has marked European Day of Languages each year on 26 September, in order to focus attention on its rich linguistic diversity. The European Union boasts 24 official languages, and around 60 regional and minority languages are spoken across the Member States. Europe's linguistic mosaic also includes a variety of sign languages spoken by half a million people, heritage languages such as ancient Greek and Latin, as well as Esperanto – a planned international language created in Europe. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), many world languages, including European ones, are endangered and could disappear due to the dominant role of languages such as English with a huge population of native speakers and other learners. Regional and minority languages (RMLs) together with smaller state languages – the 'lesser-used languages' – are under serious threat of extinction. This threat is exacerbated by digital technology. The future of RMLs depends to some extent on their presence in new digital media. Young people communicate and seek information mainly via the internet. If online content is only available in dominant languages, lesser-used languages could become 'digitally extinct'. However, digital technology is not necessarily a death sentence; it can also offer a rescue kit. Online education, online language learning and language technologies can help revitalise endangered languages. To achieve this objective, huge efforts are needed by speakers' communities and language technology specialists to gather data, analyse and process it, in order to create language tools. With such tools, young people can create content in lesser-used languages and expand their use.