Internet and social media – blessing or curse for linguistic minorities?

December 14, 2015 11:33 am

internet influence terminologyIn the last years, the internet has become more and more important. In particular social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, have billions of users and therefore a wide influence on the society. The internet affects especially societal aspects and has nowadays undoubtedly a significant impact on languages. The way language is used has changed due to the internet and social media. But the main question in this context is not if the internet influences languages, but rather how it affects them. Is it a blessing or a curse for small (possibly endangered) languages?

As throughout all discussions, there are two opposite points of view. Some consider the internet as a threat to small languages and linguistic minorities, while others as a platform to promote their revival. According to the opponents, internet threatens language in several ways. First of all, it has a negative influence on the usage and especially written proficiency. Beyond that, English arose to the lingua franca status and dominates the linguistic landscape on the internet. In many cases, it is simply easier to use English instead of introducing a whole new language to the internet. For other languages, the dominance of English can constitute a serious danger for their existence because they are not taken into consideration on the internet or social media. Particularly small languages and dialects are at risk of dying out if English is used more and more. Therefore, the opponents blame the internet and social media for a disadvantageous language shift and the extinction of small languages.

But is the internet really ‘eliminating’ languages? In the end, it might contribute to the disappearance of some languages of the world. But at the same time, it can also bring along several advantages for linguistic minorities. Although English is still the dominant language on the internet, other languages are catching up. Furthermore, languages are open systems and therefore, changes are inevitable and a natural process. Keeping that in mind, the threat coming from the internet does not seem that dangerous anymore. But even more convincing is the fact that the internet actually provides a platform to promote the revival of (endangered) languages. By strengthening and revitalizing speech communities, languages can be resuscitated or even reborn. Thanks to social media, languages have a stronger presence on the internet and can regain value. In doing so, people are encouraged to use small languages more often and even new speakers can be attracted. The internet acts as an open venue for people and offers a platform to redefine their way they use language, communicate and, also, express their identity. A good example for this is the Luxembourgish language which could develop its written language with the support of social media. By now, there are more people writing in Luxembourgish than ever before, thanks to the internet and the social media. Furthermore, there are also several small languages already included in Facebook, as for instance Cherokee, Welsh or Frisian.

Social media attracts easily the masses and therefore contributes to the change and shift of languages. Furthermore, media can be used to increase the status and the prestige of a language. It facilitates the contact between speakers of small languages and contributes in this way to the maintenance of linguistic minorities. Lastly, the internet gives also the possibility of storing and maintaining records of materials in various different languages. That way, even in the case that a language eventually disappears, there will still remain a record of its existence.

In the end, it can be said that the internet definitely influences language shift and provides at the same time a platform to subvert and develop a small language, as the following quote sums up very well: “Technologies offer tremendous potential for languages but also represent a risk as to date only a small minority of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world is available in cyberspace” (Daniel Prado, Linguist).

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Written by Anica Reifsteck

Study visitor from the University of Luxembourg

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