Multilingualism online: “Language barriers are a major challenge”

Language technologies offer many handy services, such as instant translation. However, speakers of smaller languages could be missing out. MEP Jill Evans believes the EU could help.

Online there is a growing gap between large, well-resourced languages and languages with fewer speakers. Jill Evans, a UK member of the Greens/EFA group, has written an own-initiative report on language equality in the digital age. In it she describes the challenges facing smaller languages in the digital era and the possible ways they could be given support.

Parliament’s culture and education committee adopted the report on 19 June and it will now be up to MEPs to vote on it during an upcoming plenary session. This is expected to be in September. Once adopted, the report will be forwarded to the European Commission for consideration.

We asked Evans to tell us more about her report.

We ask Siri for directions or ask Alexa to play a song. Speakers of lesser used or minority languages are unable to access those services in their own languages

Jill Evans
Why is the question of language equality online important when we are all communicating in several of the same languages, mostly in English?

The digital world is no longer separate from the “real world”. We ask Siri for directions or ask Alexa to play a song. Speakers of lesser used or minority languages are unable to access those services in their own languages and usually have to opt for a dominant language online. In fact, many technologies are only available in a handful of those dominant languages. As technologies become more important in our lives, there is a real fear that this could accelerate language shifts in the “real world”.

Language is more than a communication tool. It is also intrinsically linked to culture and identity. There are in fact over eighty languages spoken in the EU. In Wales, as in many countries, people have had to campaign for language equality, particularly for minority languages, to be able to use their own language in every aspect of their lives.

How can we raise the importance of multilingualism in a  digital environment? Do we need to invest?

Huge investments in language technologies are being made in the USA and in Asia and Europe is lagging behind. My report calls on the European Commission to establish a large-scale, long-term coordinated funding programme.

Another recommendation is that member states develop digital literacy programmes in lesser-used languages and introduce language technology training and tools in school curricula. That would encourage people to use their own languages as much as possible online from a young age and ensure familiarity with language technologies such as automatic translation, text-to-speech and speech recognition.

How does this affect businesses and citizens?

In the digital era, language barriers are a major challenge. For example, only 16% of European citizens purchased online from other EU countries in 2015. Language technologies present a solution to improving connections between people and encourages cross-border trade.

For complicated administrative processes, language technologies can vastly improve people’s ability to participate fully in the countries in which they live.

Speakers of minority languages such as Welsh and Basque are digitally disadvantaged, but so are some EU official languages such as Estonian, Czech and Danish. European languages would gain massively from investment in language technologies, tools and resources.

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