Regional and minority languages need better access to the digital world

EU support for new project at the Northern European and Baltic Languages and Cultures research and teaching unit


Regional and minority languages are severely under-represented in the digital world. Social media, booking websites, and Wikipedia entries are usually available in just a few languages, which is a big disadvantage for speakers of small languages such as Breton or Sardinian. With this in mind, a research consortium has now been formed in order to establish the Digital Language Diversity Project (DLDP), which is designed to facilitate future access to the digital world for users of European regional and minority languages. One of the members of this consortium is the Northern European and Baltic Languages and Cultures research and teaching unit (SNEB) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The project will run for three years and is being funded by the EU as part of the Erasmus+ program.

Linguistic diversity is one of the hallmarks of Europe and a valuable cultural inheritance that needs to be preserved. "However, we need efficient methods of analysis not only to protect these languages but also to ensure that we can actually foster them," explained Professor Anneli Sarhimaa of Mainz University. Among other things, it will be necessary to significantly enhance the extent to which these languages are used in the digital world. According to estimates, only about six percent of the world's languages are currently represented in the digital world, ranging from the Internet through software to smartphone language packages. The abundant EU regional dialects and minority languages are not only underrepresented but almost completely missing when it comes to what is on offer in digital form.

The purpose of the Digital Language Diversity Project is to contribute to the elimination of these disadvantages. The consortium is comprised of five institutions. It is being coordinated by the Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR-ILC) and led by Dr. Claudia Soria in Pisa, Italy. Other partners in addition to Mainz University are the European Language Equality Network (ELEN) in France, Karjalan Kielen Seura in Finland, and the Basque organization Elhuyar Fundazioa in Spain. These cover the regional and minority languages that will be employed by the DLDP to develop new methods for sustainably reinforcing the digital use of Breton in France, Karelian in Finland, Basque in Spain, and Sardinian in Italy. The ultimate aim is to make the tools and solutions to be developed in the project available in as many dialects and minority languages as possible.

SNEB develops cross-language training program

Within the project, the Northern European and Baltic Languages and Cultures research and teaching unit will be involved in developing a cross-language training program. The aim is to make teaching materials available and to help speakers of regional and minority languages produce cogent digital content in their own language. For this purpose, surveys of the various language communities will be first undertaken in order to determine the digital vitality of each language. It will then be possible to prepare clearly defined and practicable recommendations in the form of a Digital Language Survival Kit that will show what needs to be done to ensure that a language is better represented in the digital world.

The EU third-party funding to SNEB amounts to about EUR 80,000. This is already the second SNEB project funded by the EU within the past five years, the previous one being the ELDIA project (2010-2013), which was coordinated by Professor Anneli Sarhimaa at JGU. The purpose of ELDIA was to examine nine Finno-Ugric languages and to use the results of research to develop a so-called language vitality barometer that can be used to assess the vulnerability of minority languages.