Is Technology Killing Language?


Sep 11, 2014 by Smart Blog

As far as anybody knows, there are around 6,900 languages currently in use on Earth, each reflecting the culture, heart and history of a group of people. While 6,900 is an impressive number, it hides an alarming fact - a language dies approximately once a fortnight, and the number of world languages is expected to halve within a century.

A language is declared extinct when there is nobody left who can use it. The Eyak language of Alaska, for example, died along with its last living speaker in 2008. At the moment, many languages are on the brink of extinction, usually because they are no longer being used or learned by young people. This often happens when speakers of a language abandon it for a more advantageous one - for example, if most of a country's governance or education is delivered in the higher status language - or when one language absorbs so much from another that it no longer has a distinct identity of its own.

Success Stories

This phenomenon is not new: in the UK the resurgence of Welsh, which was rapidly dying out, is a great success story and the direct result of action being taken to preserve and nurture a language. Welsh is now widely taught in schools and spoken in communities, thus it has regained the momentum and the use among young people that is crucial for keeping a language alive. Other languages, however, have not fared so well.

Linguistic Declines

What is causing this linguistic decline? Experts have been arguing over that for decades, but new research from Cambridge University firmly links the death of languages to economic growth. In other words, the richer and more prosperous a country becomes, the more likely minority languages used within it are to decline.

This may involve many factors. As a society grows richer, it makes sense that more and more people will want to take a share of that prosperity, and the highest paid or most prestigious jobs are likely to require use of the dominant language. This, ironically, may be particularly true in countries where there is naturally a great diversity of language - the people have to be brought together for administrative purposes, and a single shared language is the easiest way to do that.

Another factor, perhaps a peculiarly modern one, may be globalisation. The internet and improved communication has generated a global marketplace, to the point that it is now quite uncommon, for businesses in many sectors, only to deal with clients from a single country or language background. That means a shared language is needed. Given the history of British colonisation, and the current dominance of the United States, that language is frequently English.


Is technology to 'blame' for this? Possibly. With increasing prosperity tends to come increasing use of the web. The internet does, of course, exist in languages other than English but such a huge proportion of online resources are in English that those who cannot use it may be at a profound personal and commercial disadvantage. Perhaps over time, English will absorb so much from speakers of other languages that it will evolve into a shared language that unites people worldwide - only time will tell.