This post was written and submitted by Matt Bramowicz.
“Modern Language Association reports that, in 2010, less than 100 American undergraduates studied Bengali, the 7th most spoken language worldwide. Compare that to the 215,954 who studied French, the 16th most spoken. (For every native speaker of French, there are about 3 native speakers of Bengali. For every American undergrad studying Bengali, there are about 2,226 American students studying French.)”
Clearly there is a significant gap in the percentage of world languages compared to what is taught (or desired to learn) in higher education institutions across the country. While this could be interpreted as a problem endemic to academia, the truth of the matter is this same imbalance can be seen in other areas as well.
An equally significant example is on the Internet. According to Internet World Stats, as of 2010, there are an estimated 445 million Chinese, 154 million Spanish and 99 million Japanese language users online, while only about 27% of total online users speak English alone. However, the majority of the content online is still only available in English. As researcher Gandal Quebecois reports,
“While most of India’s 50 million Internet users speak English, a survey by the Indian market research company JuxtConsult revealed that almost three-quarters prefer and seek out content in their first languages.”
This clear imbalance of ‘users’ vs. ‘content’ leads to many people missing content not available in their native language, avoiding purchasing from websites not in their native language, and in some cases perhaps even forced to settle for poorly machine translated content, which more often than not is riddled with inaccuracies
While this imbalance is troublesome for highly represented languages like Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi, it is particularly more troublesome for underrepresented languages. It is estimated that about 1.4 million Albanian users were online (49% of their population) in 2012. Likewise, there were about 3.5 million Bulgarian users online, representing 51% of their population. Romanian, Irish, and Icelandic users each had 44%, 77%, and 97% of their population online, respectively. With such a glaring abundance of these countries’ residents online with very little to no content representative of their native languages, it’s hard to understand why there is so little attention being paid to this issue.
While there are many language learning software programs available online that are aimed at teaching users foreign languages, the underrepresented languages in universities are just as underrepresented by the software programs. Rosetta Stone, perhaps the most famous self-teaching program, still does not offer Romanian, Icelandic, Shanghainese, Cape Verdean Creole, Hawaiian, or many other underrepresented languages. Also, while these programs are aimed at teaching fluency in a language, the truth is that fluency is nearly impossible to obtain from these programs.
In a study by Roumen Vesselinov, Ph.D.of Queens College, CUNY, it was found that after 55 hours of study with Rosetta Stone, students increased their oral proficiency one level, and the knowledge gained was equivalent to about one semester of study at the college level. While Rosetta Stone can be a great help in increasing one’s knowledge of a language, it certainly is no substitute for direct instruction and interaction with other fluent speakers, which has been proven is necessary in order to learn the intricacies of a particular language. Not to mention the high cost typically associated with programs such as Rosetta Stone, thus narrowing the market even further only to individuals who can afford it.
Programs like Brown University’s Student Language Exchange (SLE), for example, understand this and that is why it is their goal to create a community of language learners by focusing on collaborative work between students, facilitators and the international community. At the university level, SLE fills in the gap left by the current language curriculum. Through their efforts, they are hoping to make the underrepresented languages less ‘underrepresented’ while at the same time, bring awareness to the need to have more of these languages taught with the same enthusiasm as Spanish, French and other mainstream language courses.
While SLE tackles the problem at the university level, new online platforms like Ackuna are taking on the Internet via websites and mobile apps. Ackuna accomplishes this by creating a direct collaboration between online developers and foreign language speakers through a mutually beneficial relationship. By making the process simple and free for everyone, including developers, it creates an incentive to use Ackuna to generate more multilingual content online for underrepresented languages. This, in turn, results in more viewers and users of their applications. For the linguists, just like SLE it offers a social platform that encourages them to collaborate and help one another in a conducive learning environment. This increases their language skills while at the same time providing useful, real-world solutions. Currently Ackuna offers over 90 different languages.
As “non-traditional” languages are continually being pushed to the wayside in favor of more mainstream languages in the educational system, there must be new methods developed to keep all languages at the forefront, not only in academia but on the internet as well. As the world continues to become more and more connected online, there has never been a greater need to prevent the funnelling of languages down to only a select few that universities, businesses or websites believe are necessary.
While the web is relatively new (as we are the first generation to utilize its capabilities) it is safe to assume that this frontier will stretch into future generations, becoming even more and more a part of our daily lives. It is important that we take the necessary steps now, while in its infancy, to ensure all languages are represented equally for years to come. Without proper engagement in facilitating multilingual content from the start, both at the university level and online, eventually many of these languages could end up being gradually phased out over time.
Matt Bramowicz is a content writer and graphic designer for Translation Cloud, a leading professional translation company located in Jersey City, NJ, USA. You can follow him on Twitter: @MattBramowicz