Is it possible for an app to determine the fate of a language? Not if Welsh speakers have a say | Gwenno Robinson
Every two weeks, a language becomes extinct. In the next hundred years, approximately half of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on Earth will vanish, along with their distinctive vocabulary, customs, and perspective on the world.
I am fortunate to be among the small percentage of individuals in the world who grew up speaking Welsh as their first language. The fact that it has survived for 1,500 years despite being overshadowed by English, the most widely spoken language, is impressive. However, the Welsh language is currently facing a real risk as it is classified as “vulnerable” by the Endangered Languages Project and “potentially vulnerable” by Unesco. According to the most recent census, despite significant resources and efforts, there are 24,000 fewer Welsh speakers in Wales than there were ten years ago, with the percentage dropping to a record low of 17.8%.
However, there are some positive developments to note. The use of Welsh as the medium of instruction in schools is increasing. In light of the pandemic, individuals worldwide have taken to learning Welsh through online platforms like Duolingo. In December 2023, Duolingo reported that their Welsh course had reached an impressive 3 million learners, with a significant following in the US, Argentina, New Zealand, and India.
Earlier this year, Duolingo made the decision to “pause” its Welsh language course in order to prioritize more “popular” languages, like Spanish. This was a disappointing blow, considering that Spanish is spoken by approximately 574 million people worldwide, while Welsh is only spoken by just over 500,000.
The Welsh course will remain available for learners to use, but it will no longer be updated or developed. Within a few days of the announcement being made, a petition urging the first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, to personally intervene with the CEO of Duolingo, gathered a few thousand signatures. Jeremy Miles, the Welsh government’s minister for education and the Welsh language, has since met Duolingo to express his “concern with the decision”.
This is part of a larger pattern of cutting resources from a language that was already lacking in funding. Just last month, HSBC received criticism for discontinuing their Welsh language phone service. Rosetta Stone, a well-known language learning program, also recently halted the development of their Welsh language course.
It’s possible that we were too optimistic in believing that technology companies could provide the solution for reviving endangered languages. These corporations, like Duolingo (a company with publicly traded stock), operate on a supply and demand model. While they appear to be supportive of endangered languages by offering courses in Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh, their main motivation remains profit. The preservation of endangered languages will never be their top priority.
I had a conversation with Anna Luisa Daigneault, who is the programme director at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. She believes that the internet is a tool with both benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, her institute has utilized modern technology to develop the Living Dictionary, an online resource that enables speakers of minority languages to contribute and exchange language data within their communities. However, she cautions against overlooking the underlying power dynamics involved.
It is a challenge for lesser-known languages to have representation on the internet. According to research conducted by the Meta-Net Network of Excellence, 29 European languages, including Welsh, are at risk of disappearing digitally due to insufficient support for language technologies. In many cases, minority languages do not have access to their own keyboards or more advanced features like machine translation and speech recognition. In my 20 years of life, I have only ever spoken Welsh with my Mamgu (grandmother). However, since she got an iPhone, our text conversations now solely take place in English because she finds overriding the autocorrect to be frustrating. This issue is not limited to the older generation – a study found that nearly 70% of Welsh speakers aged 13 to 15 often or always use English online.
We must bring endangered languages into the digital age or risk abandoning them. Dr. Gerald Roche, a political associate professor at La Trobe University and co-chair of the Global Coalition for Language Rights, discussed with me the misconception that technical solutions can solve political issues. According to him, communities require a wider framework of self-governance and protection from human rights violations in order to preserve their languages. There is no application that can achieve this.
In the end, our goal is to discover strong and trustworthy methods of learning languages that are not motivated by making money or meeting market demands. While technology certainly has a role to play, we cannot rely solely on it to supply us with tools to preserve endangered languages. Anna Luisa Daigneault shares a similar belief, promoting language learning that is created and shared by the people.
In the correct hands, technology can revitalize minority languages. The AI Prinka is currently being utilized to safeguard the Ainu language in north-east Japan. Te Hiku Media, a non-profit radio station owned by Māori people, has become the first to implement automatic speech recognition technology for an Indigenous language. Similar advancements are taking place in Wales as well. The Welsh government recently provided funding for a new project that allows young people who use a computerized speech program to speak both Welsh and English, and to also choose a regional dialect. Additionally, Bangor University’s Canolfan Bedwyr is currently creating a Welsh-language voice assistant, Macsen.
In the end, the Welsh language, along with other minority languages, has technology to thank for its continued existence. The introduction of the printing press in the 15th century allowed for the creation of the first Welsh Bible in 1588, leading to increased literacy in Welsh among the mostly illiterate population. This is still recognized as a major factor in preserving the Welsh language.
We are facing a decision regarding minority languages. The options are clear: either we include them, or we neglect them.
Gwenno Robinson is an award-winning writer and documentary-maker from south Wales