This is part 2 of the article “Language vitality in the digital age: a look at Icelandic”. Click here to read part 1.
In part 1, we introduced the ideas of digital minoritisation and domain loss and talked about how they are affecting Icelandic. We also looked at the language’s history up until the turn of the millennium. In this part, we’ll look at the current state of affairs and what the Icelandic government is doing to try and secure the future of the Icelandic language.
Unprecedented pace of change
In recent decades, a sea change has occurred in Iceland. The country has the highest proportion of regular internet users of anywhere in Europe, at 97% in 2014. A staggering 93% of Icelanders have a Facebook account, and other online services are also incredibly popular (a majority of Icelanders use Snapchat, YouTube and Spotify). Never before has Iceland been so exposed to foreign languages and cultures to the extent it is now, and never on such an intimate level at all levels of society.
Over the past five years or so, growing use of smart devices has also prompted concerns about the youngest generation. Icelandic children play games and watch foreign-language YouTube videos on tablets before they have even reached fluency in Icelandic, and there are fears that this may have an impact on their native language skills in later life.
The University of Iceland is currently conducting a major study into the impact that digital devices are having on Icelandic, including Icelandic children’s ability to master their native language. While the results have not yet been published, there is a firm belief that the study will show digital devices have a significant negative impact on Icelandic children’s abilities in their mother tongue.
This is crucial for many reasons. Mastery of one’s first language is a prerequisite of being able to learn a second language fluently. The Icelandic education system addresses this issue for children of immigrants by providing them with classes in their first language (e.g. Polish children are taught in Polish), enabling them to reach a better level of fluency in Icelandic than they otherwise would. The government has yet to react and implement a plan for bolstering Icelandic children’s first language skills, however.
The time for action
If Icelandic is to have a bright future in the digital era, then action needs to be taken, and quickly. There are signs of positive developments ahead. The Icelandic government recently committed funds to boosting the use of Icelandic online. Almannarómur is the organisation tasked with securing the digital future of the language.
Speaking in a recent interview with Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV, Stefanía Guðrún Halldórsdóttir, the chairman of the organisation, emphasised the need to press ahead: “We have now come to the point when we actively need to decide to do this… This is a big decision, and a big project. We are ready and everyone is ready with us.”
The organisation has set its sights high. One of the key strategies for securing the digital future of Icelandic is to collaborate with the tech giants. Without participation from the private sector, the project is unlikely to succeed. On this, Stefanía says: “If we imagine that you are creating some program and can choose from a list and have it translated into Icelandic: [the tech] industry does that. Microsoft wants to come out in 60 languages, this is our ambition, [to be among them].”
The scale of the challenge is immense, however. Take the example of digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. To add a new language to a service like this, a gargantuan amount of data is required. First of all, the system needs to convert speech sounds into words a computer can interpret. This requires creating a speech recognition system able to cope with myriad different voices, speaking styles and contexts.
Secondly, the system needs to be able to extract meaning from the sentence it is given. This requires complex software able to analyse different parts of speech. Then to produce coherent output, the system needs to have an understanding of Icelandic grammar and syntax. Finally, to speak the reply, the system needs an Icelandic text-to-speech engine, which is no mean feat to develop.
Progress has been made in all of these areas, but a usable solution has yet to become commercially available. The work goes on, and every day time is running out. Perhaps with the government’s renewed commitment to language technology, Icelandic stands a chance of not only surviving in the digital age, but truly thriving.