Nothing like preparing for a keynote to open our minds to what is happening in our world.
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to speak at the Fourth International Symposium on Languages for Specific Purposes (ISLSP) hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida and the Centers for International Business Education and Research (CIBERS).
I spoke on digital trends and their importance for language. But the process of preparing made me step back and really think about what is actually happening to the languages of our world due, in part, to how technology is reshaping our lives.
We start with an enormous set of languages in our world. Approximately 7,389 spoken languages are called “L1 Languages”, which means they are used by a community of speakers as their first language. Most of us speak only a few languages if we are lucky.
When you go deeper, you can see the concentration of languages is increasing.
About six percent of the world’s languages have more than one million speakers and reach about 94% of the world. However, fewer than 10,000 people account for half of the languages and less than one thousand people account for approximately 25% of the languages remaining. Those are very small sets of people per language and that leads to a real issue for the future of this diverse set of languages.
When we think of extinction, we tend to think of species extinction. It also applies to language.
One estimate is that a language ends every 14 days. We’re not really creating new languages, so the numbers will dwindle and we’ll continue to concentrate on a smaller set of languages in the years ahead.
In my view, the reasons for this two-fold. It is partly driven by the growth of the web and partly due to the growth of artificial or programming languages.
The penetration of the Internet worldwide breaks down language, culture and other barriers that helped many of these local languages survive. Your village today can be the world, not a geography confined by land or sea.
More than half of our world (54.4%) are online today, which translates to 4.2 billion people. We are reaching a tipping point where the majority of our world can communicate and learn across borders, across multiple channels and will naturally shift towards languages more convenient to speak to friends around the world.
The most growth related to those joining us online is occurring in Africa (9,941% growth from 2000 to 2018 with 35% of all people online today). The Middle East has the next highest growth with 4,893% growth from 2000 to 2018 and 64.5% of people with web access). So, 1/3 of everyone in Africa and 2/3 of everyone in the Middle East has internet access.
Increased access and global reach helps lead a migration towards the big three (Chinese, Spanish, English) and decent flow towards the next seven (Hindi, Arabic, Portugese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese and Punjabi/Lhanda) which constitute the top 10 languages in the world.
Part of this phenomenon of how language is changing in its power relates to programming, technology and its impact on how we communicate.
Emojis are exploding in use and are gaining respect for their ability to share real thoughts and ideas. In fact, we’re now seeing the legal community make the argument that emoji use is discoverable, since it translates beliefs similar to text. We send billions of emojis daily.
YouTube has more than a billion users. We watch more than 500 million hours of videos on YouTube each day and we see more than eight billion videos on Facebook daily. Social media is the new TV for the majority of our world.
And this is all accelerating due to the explosion of people who are learning the language of programming. There are thousands of programming languages that create new software, new media and new channels. Although no one has an exact number, it is estimated that there are more than 20 million programmers worldwide, although I believe this number is very low.
Overall, we are in a world where languages will concentrate into smaller numbers over the next few decades. New ways to communicate will continue to surface that are less dependent on words and/or use a combination of visual and text to reach us.
And perhaps most important of all, a new generation of programmers will evolve how we communicate and how language is impacted. We have yet to see the real impact of technology on language.
What we can all remember is that our first language is how we learn to interpret our world. Our ability to understand our world and interpret what matters is greatly shaped by the nuances and its cultural impact. If that language experience crosses borders and channels and type of media with more regularity, it will surely impact how the next generation interprets and navigates our world.
Note: My next book, Countering Hate, co-written with Haroon K. Ullah, will touch on these topics. It will be available on Amazon.com by March 20, 2018.