Every 14 days, a language dies. Over the next century, about half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth today will have disappeared, taking with them a unique lexicon, culture and way of seeing the world.
I am lucky to be part of the 0.01% of the world’s population whose first language is Welsh. Its survival over 1,500 years is remarkable, living alongside English, the most dominant language on Earth. The Welsh language faces a real threat; it is classified “vulnerable” by the Endangered Languages Project and “potentially vulnerable” by Unesco. The latest census showed that despite huge spending and effort, in 2021 there were 24,000 fewer Welsh speakers in Wales than a decade earlier, with the proportion falling to a record low of 17, 8%.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. Welsh-medium teaching in schools is on the rise. During the pandemic, people around the world started learning Welsh on the internet through apps such as Duolingo. In December 2023, Duolingo announced that the app’s Welsh course had reached a record high 3 million learnersproving particularly popular in the United States, Argentina, New Zealand and India.
So when Duolingo announced Earlier this year, his ‘suspending’ his Welsh lessons to focus on more ‘popular’ languages, such as Spanish, came as a kick in the teeth. In total, around 574 million people speak Spanish worldwide. Just over 500,000 people speak Welsh.
The Welsh course will remain available to learners, but it will no longer be updated or expanded. A few days after the announcement, a petition urging the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, to intervene personally with the CEO of Duolingo, gathered a few thousand signatures. Jeremy Miles, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Welsh Language, has since met with Duolingo to express his “concern at this decision”.
It’s a symptom of a broader trend to reduce resources for an already underfunded language. Just last month, HSBC was criticized for scrapping its telephone line in Welsh. Popular language learning platform Rosetta Stone also recently stopped developing its Welsh language course.
Perhaps we were naive to think that tech companies might hold the answer when it came to revitalizing endangered languages. After all, companies like Duolingo (a publicly traded company) will rely on a supply and demand model. Even though they seem to want to support endangered languages, by introducing Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh, they remain motivated by profit. The interests of endangered languages will never be central.
I spoke to Anna Luisa Daigneault, program director at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who sees the power of the Internet as a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, the Living Tongues Institute leveraged new technologies to create the Living Dictionary, an online platform that allows speakers of minority languages to upload language data and share it with their own networks. But she cautions that we should keep in mind the broader power structures at play.
She’s right. It’s a fight for minority languages to be represented on the Internet. Research carried out by the Meta-Net network of excellence concluded that 29 European languages, including Welsh, were at risk of digital extinction due to lack of support in language technologies. Minority languages often don’t have their own keyboard, let alone more advanced features like machine translation and voice recognition. In the 20 years of my life I have only spoken Welsh to my Mamgu (grandmother). Since she got an iPhone, our text conversations are only in English due to the frustration she finds in ignoring autocorrect. This is not limited to the older generation either. A study found that almost 70% of Welsh speakers aged 13-15 used English ‘often’ or ‘always’ online.
We must take endangered languages with us into the digital age, otherwise we risk leaving them behind. Dr Gerald Roche, Associate Professor of Politics at La Trobe University and Co-Chair of the Global Coalition for Language Rights, spoke to me about “the misconception that you can solve political problems with technical solutions” . According to him, communities need a broader framework, “greater self-determination and freedom from human rights violations, to guarantee the survival of their languages”. There’s no app for that.
Ultimately, we need to find robust and reliable forms of language learning that are not driven by profit or demand. While there is certainly a place for big tech, we cannot rely on it alone to provide us with the resources needed to maintain endangered languages. Anna Luisa Daigneault echoes a similar thought, advocating for language learning “by the people, for the people.”
Technology has the power to revitalize minority languages, in the right hands. AI Prinka is used to preserve the language of the Ainu people in northeastern Japan. Te Hiku Media, a not-for-profit Maor-owned radio station, is the first to develop automatic voice recognition technology for an indigenous language. In Wales, similar innovations are occurring. Recently the Welsh Government funded a new initiative allowing young people using a computerized voice program to speak both Welsh and English and choose a regional dialect. Canolfan Bedwyr of Bangor University is currently developing a Welsh language voice assistant, Macsen.
After all, the Welsh language, like many other minority languages, owes its survival to the unintended consequences of technology. The rise of printing in the 15th century led to the publication of the first Welsh Bible in 1588, meaning that a largely illiterate population learned to read in Welsh. He is still credited today with saving the Welsh language from decline.
We are at a crossroads when it comes to minority languages. The choice is simple: we take them with us, or we leave them behind.