Like our environment our languages are also dying. As the world races towards speed and efficiency, much was debated this week about the future of minority languages at a symposium organized by the department of linguistics, university of Mumbai. It is generally accepted that as the world becomes increasingly globalized and reliant on technology, English has been reinforced as a primary mode of communication. Hence in the quest to streamline the supply chain and improve competitiveness, governments and corporations see multiple languages as a barrier to improve upon on their desired efficiencies. It is also evident when you witness minority medium schools closing down, graduates from these institutions are looked down upon and do not find the best jobs or produce higher incomes. The technological framework is also overwhelmingly in English, it dominates our work, play and private lives which is bringing added pressure for minority languages to find a meaningful space in our vocabulary. To add to this as people continue to move further away from their communities, the chances of them continuing to speak these languages would dramatically be reduced.
The reality is that unless we change the general discourse towards protecting our local languages we may end up losing much more than what we can afford to. Languages are so much more than just about talking to each other; it also serves one of the bases of our identities, cultures and a vast storage house for interpreting ancient and forgotten wisdom of our forefathers. If we all still spoke Latin, Sanskrit, Sumerian or ancient Egyptian, Imagine how many mysteries and discoveries could have been made or solved in the fields of science, medicine, anthropology and technology. Some mathematicians may even argue that Sanskrit is the best language suited for computing and science. The challenges that our languages face may be formidable but if technology has threaten its existence may be its time to leverage the same technologies to ensure its survival. I insist that we must protect these languages just like how we treat our national treasures and historical artifacts, as we never know what light some of these ancestral poems, stories and anecdotes may shed upon to improve upon our modern day civilization.
But the important question should be is how and who should take responsibility in protecting these languages. One such idea is to use language technology and speech processing tools that may eventually serve as a bridge between different languages to communicate and do business with. For example we already have question answering services like the ones you find on shopping sites, and natural language interfaces. Since informal use once meant speaking, it now often means writing. Hence its possible for language technologies to act as a social glue between dispersed speakers of a particular language as friends, families and associates can now talk online via email, instant messaging and social media. On the cultural side, we need automated subtitling for programs and web content so that viewers can access content on the television and on sites like YouTube. Communities should also develop online groups that are centered around a common interest, which might include a shared language. You can be friends with someone who lives hundreds of miles away based on a shared interest or language in a way that just wasn’t possible 20 or even ten years ago.
Hence our precious languages don’t really have to die as we all can pitch in to stimulate our linguistic neurons while the next generation of translation technology continues to analyze the deeper structural properties of languages and catalyze it to protect rather than endanger minority languages.
By Prof. Mamta Lad & Naved Jafry