“Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language… When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language… Frequently, traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group”.
– The Linguistics Society of America: ‘What is an endangered language?’
Netflix recently featured in the Harvard Business Review in a piece which summarised the media services and production company’s “remarkable achievement” for global expansion:
Netflix’s global growth is a big factor in the company’s success[…]Netflix’s globalization strategy, and many of the challenges it’s had to overcome, are unique[…]International subscribers, many of whom are not fluent in English, often prefer local-language programming[…]Six months after entering Poland and Turkey in 2016, for example, Netflix added the local languages to its user interface, subtitles, and dubbing.
Netflix’s success is not down to its decision to translate content into local languages (the article outlines several factors which have helped the company to nail its globalisation objectives), but, providing local language content to its international audiences has been an important factor.
The consumer trend for “local language programming” is interesting, because a 2019 report by KPMG also highlighted this trend in India’s Media & Entertainment sector. OTT media services in this particular market are now delivering much more local language content across several languages in response to the growing demand from service users.
But here on the UN’s International Mother Language Day (celebrated annually across the world), the organisation has a statement to make about language and the lack of ‘language diversity’:
“Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand[…] At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world[…]The [International Mother Language Day] initiative not only increased awareness of language issues, but also mobilized partners and resources for supporting the implementation of strategies and policies in favour of language diversity and multilingualism in all parts of the world.”
Back in 2018, the World Economic Forum also wrote about language representation in the digital space (‘The internet has a language diversity problem’), though not specifically from the perspective of endangered languages. On its website it stated: “The absence of so many languages creates a so-called digital divide, that may restrict access to data and information. While, in one sense, the internet opens the door for anyone to create content in any language, many languages are not present on the web.”
Is there some hope for this problem?
At the end of last year, Airbnb announced it is doubling the number of languages the platform supports – from 31 to 62. This includes Georgian and Xhosa. In 2013, Shutterstock announced the translation of its website into four new languages: Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish, for a total of 18. When we hear about the successes of Netflix, is it too soon to suggest that global brands are creating a shift (albeit a profit-driven one) towards greater language diversity in the digital space – through multilingual entertainment and multilingual online marketplaces? Consumers are telling big brands: “I’ll consume your content and use your services. But I’d rather do it in my own language, thank you.”
None of these are endangered languages, however.
For endangered languages, part of the problem is a lack of internet access (a problem of infrastructure and facilities). And it’s also a problem about the place (read: status) of local languages in educational systems. What’s more, the population numbers for these languages are often so small that, in terms of representing a commercial opportunity (e.g. Netflix creating content in a local language for a lucrative audience base), it’s simply not viable. For the UN and its International Mother Language Day initiative, there is a lot more work to be done so that people of all languages can access information and education in their mother language, as well as enjoy the full benefits of the World Wide Web.
For many clients of the translation & localisation industry, life would be easier if there were no language barriers i.e. if there was one common language. But, diversity – in all its definitions – has never been more critical than it is today and will be key to a successful future for all. Doesn’t this mean language diversity, too?
In a world where English is often the accepted norm for entertainment, business and communications, let’s celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism here on the UN’s International Mother Language Day.
If your business requires support managing its multilingual content for overseas markets, contact our team today. They can advise you on timeframes and approaches, and our in-house translators will be ready to get straight to work on your project.
Note: Netflix is not a client of and has no association with EVS Translations
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