Minority Languages and Territorial Rights (iii): Languages and ICT

Extract of Minority Languages and Territorial Rights, my first entry at the Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights, to be published soon: discussion on language policies and Information and Communication Technologies.

Joven-Romero, M. A. (Forthcoming 2020). Minority Languages and Territorial Rights. Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights. New York: Springer.

Development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) since the 19th century to this day is having a deep impact in all the languages, and more specifically in minority languages, breaking the traditional link between language and territories (Pietikäinen & Kelly-Holmes 2011): once a message is created, it can be sent and received everywhere. These technologies are rather heterogeneous and the main factors for their analysis are the creator of the information herself, the message to be transmitted, the channel of communication and the receiver of the information (Cunliffe & al. 2013; see also ‘Endangered Languages and Territorial Rights’). While in the 19th century the development of these technologies focused on the information transmission between individuals -telegraph and then telephone-, in the 20th century these technologies -radio, television- allowed information diffusion from a few senders to large populations, as written press did before. Mainstream languages were established for those new communication channels, prejudicing the production and the image of minority language for both the speakers’ communities and the non-speakers’ communities. During the 21st century, popularization of the Internet is a challenge: while most of these new channels are initially developed in the mainstream languages, the users are available to create and receive information in their own language. New ICT may be both a factor for the demise of minority languages and for their preservation (De Bot & Stoessel 2002). The irruption of virtual social networks since the mid-2000s -and more recently the popularization of smartphones- increase the possibilities of the speakers and the magnitude of the challenge.

Both creators and receivers of information are usually young people, while most endangered languages speakers are elderly (Edwards 2002). These young people typically speak other mainstream languages (Fleming & Debski 2007) and they use the minority language depending of different factors: language confidence, language use in non-virtual contexts, message to share, target audience and previous presence of the language in the channel. In general terms, the more confident the speaker is, the more he uses the language in the ICTs, and the more the speaker uses the language in non-virtual contexts, the more he uses it in virtual contexts (Cunliffe & al. 2013).

According to the message to be transmitted using the minority language, some topics are more popular. Issues about traditions associated with the community of speakers and discussions about the sociology and the linguistics of the language itself tend to be written in the minority language (Cru 2015). In the case of highly aware people, political discussions usually appear written in the minority language. ICT also spread research and technical contents about the language, like linguistic discussions, interviews, recordings, clips and movies of speakers who often do not have personal presence in these channels -e.g. elderly people. On the contrary, general scientific, global and technical contents are usually written in the mainstream languages as well as messages expected to reach larger audiences. Finally, the more the presence of the minority language in the channel, the more the speaker tends to create contents in the minority language.

The channel also determines the minority language level of use. It is usually said that software developers do not pay enough attention to minority languages and nowadays most of the virtual social networks or mainstream applications do not offer interfaces in these languages (Jones & Uribe-Jongbloed 2012). It is argued that Google does not offer interface and products options in most of the endangered languages while at the same time it created and funded the Endangered Languages Project. Other times they offer several minority languages, but the lack of linguistic adaptation of these languages to the new technologies generates linguistic solutions that are not accepted among the community of speakers.

Target audiences influence the language too (Cunliffe & al. 2013). Most virtual social networks allow for different kind of messages with different target audiences. The user can vary the language of particular messages addressed to different audiences, and she can also use different languages for her status and profile information, elements with different communicative purposes and usually addressed to larger audiences. Some platforms also allow for the creation of specific -sometimes private- groups formed by speakers of the minority language, more popular among activist adults rather than among teenagers and children. In the case of video platforms, the creator can offer subtitles and additional information in different languages.

Apart from the previous elements influencing the use of a minority language in new technologies, ICT allow for migrant speakers to still use their language everywhere (Sallabank 2010; Lanza & Svendsen 2007; Pietikäinen & Kelly-Holmes 2011). That may strengthen the speakers community and the use of the language. ICT also serve as a means for the visibility and promotion of endangered languages among the non-speakers. The development of some language learning applications may also support the preservation of minority languages (Mirza & Sundaram 2017).


Cru J (2015). Language revitalisation from the ground up: promoting Yucatec Maya on Facebook. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 36 (3): 284-296.

Cunliffe D, Morris D, Prys C (2013) Young bilinguals’ language behavior in social networking sites: the use of welsh on Facebook. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 18(3) 339-361.

De Bot K, Stoessel S (2002) Introduction: language change and social networks. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 153: 1-7.

Edwards J. (2010). Minority languages and group identity: Cases and categories. John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam.

Fleming A, Debski R (2007) The use of Irish in networked communications: a study of schoolchildren in different language settings. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 28(2): 85-101.

Jones, EHG, Uribe-Jongbloed, E (2012). Social media and minority languages: Convergence and the creative industries. Multilingual Matters, Bristol.

Lanza E, Svendsen BA (2007) Tell me who your friends are and I might be able to tell you what language(s) you speak: social network analysis, multilingualism, and identity. International Journal of Bilingualism 11: 275-300.

Mirza A, Sundaram D (2017) Design and Implementation of Socially Driven Knowledge Management Systems for Revitalizing Endangered Languages. In: Helms et al. (eds) Social Knowledge Management in Action, Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning 3: 147-167.

Pietikäinen S, Kelly-Holmes H (2011) Gifting, service, and performance: three eras in minority-language media policy and practice. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 21(1): 51-70.

Sallabank J (2010) The role of social networks in endangered language maintenance and revitalization: The case of Guernesiais in the Channel Islands. Anthropological Linguistics 52(2): 184-205.

Minority Languages and Territorial Rights (i): Questioning the Territory-Language Link

Introduction of Minority Languages and Territorial Rights, my first entry at the Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights, to be published soon.

Joven-Romero, M. A. (Forthcoming 2020). Minority Languages and Territorial Rights. Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights. New York: Springer.

Abstract: Languages are commonly associated to territories as they are traditionally spoken by communities living in specific places. Nevertheless, languages do relate to speakers and not always to territories. This difference is highlighted by globalization, and more specifically by new possibilities for migrations, by the development of Information and Communication Technologies and by the global tendency to learn new foreign languages.

This new context calls for direct association between languages and speakers in order to preserve the rights of the latter and the languages themselves. Small minority languages are even more affected by globalization and speakers require globally recognized rights and measures according to their new reality.

Questioning Territory-Language Link

Languages are commonly associated to territories. They are usually spoken in specific territories and, in a more legal sense, they may be official or recognized by political entities associated with territories (May 2012). In this sense, most languages get their names from the places where they are spoken or where they originated. It is said that Icelandic is the language of Iceland. It is also claimed that Spanish -or Castilian- is the language of Spain, although it is also the official or common language in other 21 countries, it is not the only language of Spain and it did not originate in the whole Spain.

Nevertheless, languages do not belong to territories but to speakers, and the previous link language-territory have some counterparts (Pavlenko 2011; Heller and Duchêne 2007). While stating that Nepali and Tibetan are the languages of both sides of the Mount Everest, it is difficult to imagine Nepali or Tibetan being continuously spoken in the top of the Everest. Nomad tribes like Tuareg people move around vast spaces but their languages are not continuously spoken in such territories. Their languages are more prone to receive the name of the speakers’ tribe rather than the one of the territory -although these different categories may mix and the vast territory may receive the name of the tribe too. Some languages belong to peoples spread on different regions where other languages already established, developing minority groups along vast territories. That would be the case of the Romani languages spoken by Gypsy communities especially around Europe and Asia.

In spite of the previous rebuttals, the traditional link language-territory have been accepted and used. However, globalization processes deeply challenge this relationship and three factors must be taken into account: migrations, Information and Communication Technologies and the growing popularity of learning languages. None of these factors is strictly new. Many huge migrations happened over the history, many languages moved and new ones appeared. Celtic and Latin languages spread over Europe, and European -and even African- languages arrived to America. Nowadays migrations are increasing and the development of transport means and networks offers new temporal and territorial dimensions. Information and Communication Technologies find their forerunners in old post services, but during the 20th and 21th centuries they have become faster, more accessible and they are offering more functionalities: from the old post services to virtual social networks, people not only receive but also produce more and more information and it is possible to instantaneously share it with vast communities all over the world in a cheaper and faster manner. Telegraph, radio, phone and television are also milestones in this evolution. Finally, learning languages is something popular by more and more people and most educational systems introduce the instruction of at least one foreign language.

The challenges towards the link between languages and territories are even deeper in the case of small minority languages. For these languages, migrations and social networks are critical, and their teaching and learning present different contexts, with weaker human and material resources, and with fewer but highly motivated students. Information and Communication Technologies, and especially virtual social networks where the speakers can obtain and provide written material, may play a very positive role in its preservation, but at the same time the pressure of mainstream languages in these platforms may have a negative influence.

It must be noted that minority languages and endangered languages are not the same even when they usually correlate. Some minority languages are not endangered, as it is the case of the Sentinelese language, native language of the Sentinelese tribe with some 100-250 estimated speakers living in North Sentinel island who reject any kind of contact with the outside world and modern civilization. This community and some other groups in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea jungles are very small but at the same time they remain stable and there is not any imminent serious danger against them and their languages. Similarly, some endangered languages are not minority languages, as it happens with some Chinese languages spoken by millions of people but disappearing owing to the pressure of Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, a specific language may be a minority or endangered language or not depending on the analyzed territory. Spanish in neither an endangered nor a minority language in general terms, but if we focus in the Philippines, then it is both an endangered and a minority language.

In the three following sections, I address the relationship between minority languages and territories with regard to the new context provided by globalization, and more specifically, by migrations, new Information and Communication Technologies and language learning.


Heller, M. & Duchêne, A. (2007) Discourses of endangerment: Sociolinguistics, globalization and social order. Discourses of endangerment: Ideology and interests in he defence of languages. London: Continuum, pp. 1-13.

May, S. (2012) Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. London: Routledge.

Pavlenko, A. (2011) Language rights versus speakers’ rights: on the applicability of Western languages rights approaches in Eastern European contexts. Language Policy 10: 37-58.