Good question. Màiri Mhòr nan Òran didn’t have a Gaelic smartphone and Fionn MacCumhail didnt’t really need a laptop with Gaelic Ubuntu. But is that oversimplifying things?
I’d say yes. You’ll know the sayings out of sight, out of mind and what the eye does not see will not move the heart? Now I’m not suggesting that the average user interface language will move anyone’s heart in any language but the thing is, it’s so pervasive in our lives today that I’d argue it has become part of what linguists call the linguistic landscape. And that does have a known effect on language. That’s why the world over people are fighting to get their languages on signage, from roads to stations and schools to colleges. But in terms of this new digital world, we’ve only just started out. You might be interested in an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Journal of Celtic Language Learning in 2012:
GAELIC 2.0 – Advances and New Challenges
Since the invention of the personal computer, the digital age has advanced relentlessly. This advance, in particular in conjunction with the advent of the Internet has created both new opportunities and new challenges for smaller
languages such as Scottish Gaelic.
People in the field of language shift have long argued that the use of new technologies can benefit languages which are under pressure (Crystal, 2000). Unfortunately, in most cases these efforts are sporadic and retroactive and
only rarely concerted or aimed at driving technological change and innovation to the benefit of small languages. Scottish Gaelic is a prime example of a typical “mixed case”, having made some advances but also running into new
Access and usage of new technologies
Computers and the Internet have become all but omnipresent in accessed the Internet in 2011 in some form, a figure which in the age groups below 54 rises to between 86% and 95% (Ofcom 2011). Ownership of digital
hardware is also high. In 2011, 96% of all people in Scotland aged between 16-24 owned a PC or laptop and 48% owned at least one other item of digital hardware such as a smartphone or console (Scotland’s People, 2011).
In Canada, the figures are very similar, with 79% in 2010 reporting access to the Internet (Statistics Canada 2010).
The impact of interface languages
Although this aspect of technology is still under-researched, there is some research which shows that the language used to interface with technology has an impact on the language skills and patterns of users and a high capability for self-driven learning amongst children using digital technology. Experiments and research from the 1990s onwards, such as the Hole in the Wall experiment (Mitra 2005), have led to the concept of Minimally Invasive Education. It has been demonstrated that children, without guidance, are capable of acquiring a wide range of skills, even if they are presented with technology in a language they do not understand or only partly understand.
In other languages, such as German, computing is seen as one of the main conveyors of English loanwords into the German language, especially amongst younger people where terms such as “cancel” have long ousted native
terms such as “abbrechen” (Jašová 2007). This supports the fairly intuitive assumption that the more of a given
language a user sees on screen, the more likely that is to impact on his/her language patterns.
Crystal, D. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jašová, M. (2007). Der Einfluss des Englischen und Amerikanischen auf die deutsche Sprache Bakkalaureat Thesis, Masaryk University Brno.
Mitra, S. et al (2005) Acquisition of computing literacy on shared public computers: Children and the “hole in the wall” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 2005, 21(3), 407-426.
Ofcom (2011). Internet use and attitudes. 2011 Metrics Bulletin.
Scotland’s People (2011). Annual Report: Results from 2011 Scottish Household Survey The Scottish Government 2012.
Statistics Canada (2010). Retrieved January 12, 2012
Now as always, more research would be nice and is certainly needed. But it’s most likely not a totally crazy thing to argue that there IS a link between what we see on screens all day long and language use.
And even if that weren’t true, having a bit more Gaelic around us is hardly going to be a bad thing, given how much we’re bombarded by English on all sides every day, no matter where you are.
There’s also a position paper, if you’re interested, on the history of iGàidhlig which also touches on many of these topics – you can get the PDF here.