However, the digital age presents much wider problems for Europe’s languages. Research from METANET, a network of language technology research centres, show that as many as 21 European languages are at risk of digital extinction. 

This already is happening to many EU official languages, while official majority languages are at risk of becoming endangered minority languages in the digital world. This is despite linguistic diversity being enshrined in Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

While a language is at the heart of a nation, linguistic diversity is at the heart of the EU. A key element of European identity would be lost if we lose the Union’s rich tapestry of languages.

This is an issue for all of us in Europe, because the digital world is no longer distinct from the ‘real world’. The internet now pervades every aspect of our lives, influencing how we speak and think. Many of us rely on virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, which are only available in a handful of languages. 

If speakers of lesser-used languages are unable to access those services in their own languages, they will naturally opt for one of the giant languages that currently dominate the internet. My worry is that when children grow up in a digital world unavailable in their own languages, we will see accelerated language shifts in the ‘real world’.

How can we reverse this trend for European languages? I believe that the European Union can show leadership to ensure that more people are able to use new technologies such as virtual assistants, speech recognition, text-to-speech and intelligent linguistic systems in their own languages in the future. I believe that policies must be developed to address this problem and to prepare for the future. The European Parliament overwhelmingly agreed with me on this in plenary earlier this month.

One way of raising the profile of language technologies in Europe would be to allocate the area of ‘multilingualism and language technology’ to the portfolio of a Commissioner. That person would be tasked with promoting linguistic diversity and equality at EU level. This would demonstrate a clear commitment from the Commission that it will give priority to the issue.

I also called for a large-scale, long-term coordinated funding programme for research, development and innovation in language technologies, aimed at closing the technology gap between European languages.