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December 06, 2013

Internet Strengthens Language & Cultural Diversity, Does Not Put It at Risk

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

The Internet can be blamed for some bad things, but suggesting it may be responsible for the killing off of unusual languages is a weak argument.

The claim that the Internet has complicity in the death of the world’s lesser-used languages was highlighted in a recent article in The Washington Post. The basic argument is the Internet is helping to destroy 95 percent of the world’s languages. That is because somewhere less than 5 percent of current languages are being used on the Internet, according to a linguist, András Kornai. The prediction appeared in an academic journal, PLOSOne, in a recent essay called “Digital Language Death.”

What the linguist may have touched upon is that many unusual languages may not be used in the kind and scope of conversations typically found in e-mails or texting. That does not mean the languages are not used by families at mealtime or in casual conversations in the workplace among workers. The fact is that many locations are getting more diverse. People who are friends, fellow students or work colleagues may not have similar language backgrounds. They may both speak English, but only one may also speak a dialect of Chinese or some kind of Native American language. So they speak in English at work or via e-mails. But in a family setting, the Chinese speakers may only use their family’s regional dialect of Chinese.

The lesser known languages may not have many words for technical terms, too, instead having words for more personal conversations – such as on food, family, emotion, or spiritual matters. It is more difficult therefore to use the lesser-known language in a Silicon Valley workplace.

It is also true that web is probably one of the best ways to save less-prevalent languages. Dedicated user groups and web pages can include conversations and texts in the at-risk language and related cultural matters. Take Wikipedia, for instance. It provides an incubator so items will appear about less well-known languages, The Washington Post reports. Or the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity sponsors an online encyclopedia of endangered languages.

These online efforts have much to draw upon. There are now at least 7,776 languages used the world. Some 40 percent of these languages are considered at risk for extinction, according to the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity.

If anything, a risk to the use of second or third languages is the presence of Google (News - Alert) Translate or similar tools. Why learn German if you are an English speaker when a website can translate German documents into English in a few seconds. “Why go to the lengths of learning a foreign language with Google Translate to hand,” asked a recent article in The Telegraph.

In this regard, one Washington Post reader, cruzkit, predicts, “Within the next few years-Voice technology will improve to the point that it won't matter what language you speak. You will have our crude version of Star Trek's Universal Translator. [Imagine] walking up to a friend from Germany who doesn't understand English nor do you understand German. No worries. The two of you will speak freely without the worry of not understanding each other.” 

There is a wider concern regarding technology and communication. While it improves communication overall, technology can lessen the frequency of face-to-face meetings among people. It can be used to hold discussions complete with text, video, voice and document exchange. It makes business and personal meetings much easier and less expensive to hold. But what is the real risk to our society?

In commenting about The Post article, one reader, georgewf, said it reminds him of a quote from Albert Einstein: "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."

Intimate conversation where people gather in the same room has many benefits – whether at work or in a household. Your presence adds to the conversation in a way that video conferencing simply will not provide.

It is during these conversations that true human communication takes place. It is important for the workplace, too. Back in 2007, 67 percent of senior executives and managers responded in a worldwide survey their organization would be more productive if there was more personal discussion – especially by supervisors. The NFI Research study quoted one participant who said, “Having a personal connection builds trust and minimizes misinterpretation and misunderstanding.”

Body language, tone, attention span – all become factors in a more intimate exchange. It builds confidence among the participants – and teaches them to be able to handle criticism in a way that is more nurturing than via technology. The conversation, when held in person, is also more spontaneous and leads to idea generation. It also leads to learning a system of etiquette and reduces the risk of bullying. It also may be more likely to promote respect for cultural differences, if diverse views are presented.

It is during these conversations that the language which is selected can be anyone the participants select. The key is to communicate effectively and holistically. All will benefit in the end.




Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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