Microsoft is killing language diversity—but they’re not the only high-tech culprit. Google is doing the same thing. Both of them are developing real-time translating apps, where people can speak and hear their own language as they converse with someone speaking a different language. These tech giants are the new world empires, following neatly in the footsteps of empires, from the Babylonians to the British, who initiated language-loss millennia ago.
Sounds contradictory, no? How could an app that allows people to speak and be understood in their own language be detrimental to language variety?
For Microsoft or Google to release a tool for languages, development process works in a very specific way. The engineers decide what languages it can operate in. They then have to train it to hear certain voices and particular dialects.
The tools force the choice; they define the boxes our speech must fit into. If I want to use these tools effectively, I need to speak the highly-educated dialect of a prestige language—and prestige means wealth. Since businesses develop these tools, and require a profit to continue to survive, their tool must first and foremost cater to users with power and wealth. The individual does not get to decide what language their internet experience is in; we only select from a menu cooked up by the developers.
So if I want to speak Menominee to Skype or Google, I’m out of luck; I’ll just have to use English. If I speak African American Vernacular English, I’m in no better shape; standard dialect is required. My Basque acquaintance from Spain has difficulty understanding French Basque speakers, so I can’t imagine Google will do much better. I can’t imagine what code-switching does to these apps; they may handle English and Spanish well, but what about Spanglish? I’ll have to choose one or the other. I have to speak the dialect the engineers pre-selected for me.
This is the power of empire. They define who people are, and they begin with what makes the most sense for the wealthy. I discussed in another post the inherent biases that function in Google Translate. By virtue of their power, the decisions they make as most useful for them limit the choices of me and the rest of society. Once my society limits where and when I can speak my language, the language begins to die.
How languages decline
A language survives when its community of speakers can cover all areas of their lives with that language. They must be able to work, shop, and socialize. When empire moves in, the new powers force a new language into areas of people’s lives where another language used to reside.
For example, before Europeans came to the US, Mohawks and Mahicans lived their lives with their own languages. (See my post on this here.) They would switch languages occasionally for the sake of trade (I’m not sure who was speaking which language at that point), but they could live their lives with their own language.
Once the Europeans came, other languages disrupted the equilibrium. This didn’t cause a problem, at first. The Mohawks and Mahicans started speaking French, and vice-versa. Once the US government declared, however, that all education and the personal lives of Native American children must be conducted in English while isolated in boarding schools, the native languages declined sharply. When the kids went back home, they had forgotten how to speak their language in any context.
Open the code to minority language communities
Microsoft and Google can help the problem, but they must give up some power. They have to provide people tools so they can speak their language in whatever sphere they want.
The tech corporations have to allow more open-source use of language software. Speakers of Menominee and Aymara and Oromo have to be able to tweak software to suit their language. Open the code so that the backbone of the language-learning algorithms can learn languages that the engineers haven’t even heard of.