Today, 21 February, is International Mother Language Day. Since 1999, this day has been an occasion to celebrate multilingualism, and especially the smaller “mother” languages that people may speak in home settings but may be less able to use in public or administrative contexts.
As part of International Mother Language Day, users of minoritised languages are being encouraged to promote their languages on the internet, particularly on social media. This is especially important at a time when digital technologies are becoming increasingly necessary within global society, and many lesser-used languages are further disadvantaged by their lack of a significant online presence. The UN estimates that out of seven thousand languages spoken across the globe, “less than a hundred are used in the digital world”. In order to increase the visibility of these minoritised languages, the “memeML” challenge was devised in 2017. Participants are encouraged to create a meme—typically based on a stock image with a humorous caption in two parts—that uses their “mother language”. By uploading this image to social media and adding the hashtag #memeML, the user adds it to the pool of publicly visible mother language memes, enabling easy sharing and contributing to the online visibility of the language in question.
Image: a Cornish doge meme: “very meme; extremely mother language; many cornish; wow.”
MemeML is one of many ways in which the internet can be used to spread awareness of minoritised languages, as well as to allow their users to communicate with each other across large distances. When few people speak a language, it may be hard for speakers to encounter each other in person, particularly when the language is not the majority language of any particular geographical area. The internet, of course, allows speakers to come together from anywhere in the world and transcend certain difficulties.
A further feature of online communication is that it occupies an interesting middle ground between speech and formal writing. While most language-use on the internet is in written form (although the volume of video content is continually expanding), it displays certain characteristics of spoken language: it is spontaneous, can occur in real time, and contains extralinguistic elements such as formatting or emoji that can convey nuanced information about the speaker’s intentions, in the same way that facial expressions and body language can during speech. Unlike traditional media, online spaces also allow a more personal form of expression: not only in terms of what subjects are discussed and what viewpoints are put forward, but also in terms of what type of language is used. Users of language online need not feel any institutional pressure to use standard language of the kind that would normally be seen in newspapers or heard on the radio. For minoritised languages, where standard forms may not exist—or, if they do, are frequently contested or not fully developed—this allows language users to use language in more personal ways that may better reflect their own identity and relationship with the language. My work as part of MEITS Strand 3 on the use of Breton in the media is revealing that those who use it online are able to make use of a wider range of spellings and dialectal vocabulary, and may take different approaches to borrowing words from other languages when compared with traditional media. This creates a varied output, which may feel more authentic and relevant to individual speakers, ensuring that the language remains appealing and retains its vitality.
With the internet an increasingly important lifeline for minoritised languages, it is crucial that the needs of their speakers be taken into account as technology moves forward. Software developers should consider developing technology that can easily be adapted to other languages; governments must prioritise implementing reliable internet connections and providing training for those who may be uncomfortable with using new technologies; language planning authorities need to consider how the internet can offer us alternatives to traditional top-down models that prioritise a canonical standard language over the varieties actually used by speakers.
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