Google launched an Irish-language version of Gmail on Thursday, offering the language’s roughly 1 million speakers a way to send and read emails using a platform in their native tongue. Linguists said the move is a prime example of how the English-dominated Internet, an engine of globalization, offers both a challenge and opportunity to the world’s roughly 3,000 endangered languages.
The Irish Gmail project was a collaboration between the San Francisco-based Web services giant, speakers of the language in Ireland and Kevin Scannell, a professor of the language at Washington University-St. Louis, the Irish Times reported.
“One of the really great things about the Internet is its ability to connect people with niche interests,” said Stephanie Hyland, an Irish-speaking PhD student in New York.
“So while there may not be an abundance of Irish speakers actually living near me, I can go on Twitter, YouTube or a chat room and find people from all over the world speaking Irish,” said Hyland. “You can always try to learn from books or by studying alone, but without some interaction with other people speaking the language it's easy to lose motivation”
During part of the time the British Empire ruled Ireland from London, colonial authorities banned and imposed harsh punishments for speaking, writing or teaching the Irish language. Since reaching full independence in 1949 speakers of Irish, a Gaelic language, have tried to mount a comeback. Nevertheless, almost every speaker of Irish also speaks English.
Linguists say many such languages today face a danger that is less political, but no less a threat: the influx of English and other major written languages brought on by the tide of globalization.
The Rosetta Project, which aims to preserve vanishing human speech in digital form, says many tongues are at risk of going silent in the next hundred years a result of social and economic forces. Rosetta has 1,500 languages microscopically etched onto a nickel disk designed to last for millennia. The project says 90 percent of languages could be extinct by the end of the 21st century.
K. David Harrison, a Swarthmore linguistics professor who specializes in endangered languages, said that he is trying to build an index of all the languages that have a presence on the Internet — but that the task is challenging because of the way such languages make their way onto the Web.
For example, it’s difficult to search for them. “The majority of the world's languages are not written,” Harrison said. “They’re getting online in creative ways. There’s now large amounts of performances of traditional stories or modern stories on YouTube, and you can’t find them because there’s no language detector for that.”
Harrison praised the efforts of some technology companies including Microsoft, which has launched Windows in many minority languages, and he said there are some tongues that would die completely without digital technology.
“There are languages for which no speakers remain, but there is a body of recordings of that language, and that body of recording can be made available” online, Harrison said.
For Brian Joseph, a linguistics professor at Ohio State University specializing in endangered languages, the Internet "offers a ‘space’ where the language can be used (assuming literacy on the part of users), and in that it can allow for conversational (or conversation-like) interactions among speakers."
In the United States, digital technologies have connected Cherokee speakers and helped teachers engage students in Oklahoma. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube all offer online means to hear, speak and write the Native American language, Al Jazeera reported in November.
The disappearance of a language means the death of an entire way of thinking about the world around us, said Gabriel Beecham, an Irish software developer from Dublin. He said he has worked with Wikimedia and Duolingo, a language learning site and app, to give Irish a cyber-existence.
He said the Internet — still largely dominated by English — is a double-edged sword for languages, as it both threatens and perpetuates them.
“Many Irish kids in English-speaking areas attend a "Gaelscoil," or Irish-speaking school,” Beecham told Al Jazeera. “They have their lessons and games in Irish, chat in Irish on the bus, etc — but they still use English online!”
Endangered languages need to stake their claims on the Internet now, he said.
“It is important for minority languages to embrace technology and the online word,” he said. ‘It is the future.”