by Charlie Sorrel
Originally published: June 20, 2016
The world's languages aren't dying online. They never even existed.
There are two ways of looking at the fact that just 2% of the world’s 6,000-odd languages are thriving online.
One is that 98% of our human communication heritage is doomed, as more people switch to more global languages to communicate. The other, says Priceonomics’ Alex Mayyasi, is that these "few languages becoming the language of the web could unite people more closely than they’ve been since the fall of the Tower of Babel."
There’s a fundamental difference between how a language dies in the real world and how it fails online. A living language becomes extinct when there aren’t enough people around to speak it any more. But a "digital" language faces the opposite problem. It has to establish itself from nothing to become viable. And this isn’t easy in a world of apps that need to be localized for each language. Small developers will stick to English, Spanish, German, maybe French, and so on, because they don’t have the resources to do any more. And even huge resource-rich behemoths like Microsoft can drag their heels when it comes to adding, say, spell-check dictionaries to its software. And that’s before we get to things like Unicode (the international standard for symbols and letters on computers) support for languages using non-standard script or the need for huge databases of language pairs to drive tools like Google Translate.