Minority languages facing the Twitter tsunami

May 23, 2012
Attached to this post I present the short presentation that I gave at a panel last week in Bilbao. There was a seminar, "The Internet and the promotion of linguistic diversity", organised by the UNESCO Chair on World Language Heritage of the University of the Basque Country. And I was glad to meet representatives from Fryslan, Wales, Asturias, Aragon, and we also heard through videoconferecing about indigenous languages in Mexico and Maori in New Zealand.

Here's my presentation, then:

So, I focused on a couple of points at the seminar.

There can be interaction in a minority language in the Internet, particularly on 1-to-1 level in places like Facebook, but, from there, it may be more difficult to build a social interaction. See screenshot of conversation in Yucatec, in a Facebook page localised in Basque (btw, one of my mottos is, menus are OK, but we need food in our languages).

A better termomether of the vitality of a given language might be Twitter. More than a social network, Twitter is disruptive social media; conversations and community-sense can be build there, and its function as a channel for links is very important.

Get an answer for these questions below, and you'll see the real prospects for a language in this Internet age:

  • Is there real conversation in a given language in Twitter? or it's just code-word addition as symbolic markers? (Kia Ora in maori, and not much else, or congratulations/hello/kisses in Basque in the context of Spanish conversations, see screenshot from Tuenti, a Facebook-like site in Spain that has thousands of Basque users, and also a localised interface).

  • Is there content to be shared in a given language on Twitter? Not just preservation-minded sites, or language-centric blogs, but real everyday issues in a language?
  • Have users been able to somehow create memes?

The Internet or Twitter as social media is not the tool of salvation for us speakers of minority languages. In my view, it's more like a tsunami radically altering the communication/culture landscape. We either float, or we we drown. Basques and Welsh, I think, are managing to float, somehow. We can feel the language live in Twitter (see Umap, a Basque aggregator of tweets). Check for that in Breton: little hope, I'm afraid.

Another point that I stressed is the need for a bunch of tech-entrepreneurs to actively engage in language issues. If we don't do it, nobody will do it for us. Companies like CodeSyntax or tech-savvy people can be key actors, For instance, in the case of Aragonese, with just a few thousand speakers, it seems to me that a core group of hackers are doing great things, like Juan Pablo Martinez Cortes that was present at the seminar, or the geeks behind Arredol. Maybe they haven't created a meme-machine in their twittersphere, but I see hope for that.


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Luistxo Fernandez

Project manager.