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The German Language in the Digital Age — Executive Summary

Information technology changes our everyday lives. We typically use computers for writing, editing, calculating, searching for information, and increasingly for reading, listening to music, viewing photos, and watching movies. We carry small computers in our pockets and use them to make phone calls, write emails, get information, and entertain ourselves, wherever we are. How does this massive digitisation of information, knowledge, and everyday communication affect our language? Will our language change or even disappear?

All our computers are linked together into an increasingly dense and powerful global network. Although the girl in Ipanema, the customs officer in Lindau, and the engineer in Kathmandu can all chat with their friends on Facebook, they are unlikely ever to meet one another in online communities and forums. If they are worried about how to treat an earache, they will all check Wikipedia, but even then they won’t read the same article. When Europe's netizens discuss the effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident on European energy policy in forums and chat rooms, they do so in cleanly separated language communities. What the Internet connects is still divided by the languages of its users. Will it always be like this?

Many of the world’s 6,000 languages will not survive in a globalized digital information society. It is estimated that at least 2,000 languages are doomed to extinction in the decades ahead. Others will continue to play a role in families and neighbourhoods, but not in the wider business and academic world. What are the German language’s chances of survival?

With almost 100 million speakers, the German language is fairly well positioned compared to many languages. There is a large number of public television channels with German-language programmes (23 in Germany, six in Austria, four in Switzerland) and more than 50 private TV broadcasters. Most international movies are still dubbed into German. The book and newspaper market, although often declared moribund, is in fact fairly stable and active: the German book trade association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels) has reported annual sales of almost 10 billion Euros over the last few years, with a clear tendency towards online bookselling and e-books. In Austria and Switzerland sales fell slightly. According to the Association of German Magazine Publishers (Verband Deutscher Zeitschriftenverleger), magazine revenues are constant at around €7 billion.

Despite the sharp decline in the international role of the German language, it is still the second most studied foreign language in Europe. Due to the singular history of European integration in the 20th century, Germany and Austria have not yet demanded that the German language be given full recognition by the administration of the European Union, even though it has more than enough speakers to warrant a higher status in the Union’s contracts and treaties. However, rather than disadvantaging German-speaking countries, this has led to a significant improvement in the image of German.

There are plenty of complaints in German speaking countries about the ever-increasing use of Anglicisms. Some even fear that the German language will become riddled with English words and expressions but our study suggests that this worry is misguided. The German language has already survived the impact of new words and terms from the two original languages of science, Greek and Latin, as well as the intrusion of French words in the 18th and early 19th centuries. One good antidote to losing our lovely little German words and phrases is to actually use them – frequently and consciously; linguistic polemics about foreign influences and government regulations do not usually help. Our main concern should not be the gradual Anglicisation of our language, but its complete disappearance from major areas of our personal lives. Not in science, aviation, and the global financial markets, which actually need a world-wide lingua franca. Rather we mean the many areas of life in which it is far more important to be close to a country’s citizens than to international partners – domestic policies, for example, administrative procedures, the law, culture, and shopping.

The status of a language depends not only on the number of speakers or books, films, and TV stations that use it, but also on the presence of the language in the digital information space and software applications. Here too, the German language is fairly well-placed: all important international software products are available in German versions; the German Wikipedia is the second largest in the world, and with more than 14 million registered domains, the top level domain .de (“Deutschland”) is the world’s largest country-specific top level domain.

In the field of language technology, German is well equipped with products, technologies, and resources. There are applications and tools for speech synthesis and recognition, spelling correction, and grammar checking. There are also many applications for automatically translating language, even though these often fail to produce linguistically and idiomatically correct translations, especially when German is the target, a problem primarily due to the specific linguistic characteristics of German.

Information and communication technologies are now preparing for the next revolution. After personal computers, networks, miniaturisation, multimedia, mobile devices, and cloud-computing, the next generation of technology will feature software that understands not just spoken or written letters and sounds but entire words and sentences, and supports users far better because it speaks, knows, and understands their language. Forerunners of such developments are the free online service Google Translate that translates between 57 languages, IBM’s supercomputer Watson that was able to defeat the US-champion in the game of “Jeopardy”, and Apple’s mobile assistant Siri for the iPhone that can react to voice commands and answer questions in English, German, French, and Japanese.

The next generation of IT will master human language to such an extent that users will be able to communicate using the technology in their own language. Devices will be able to find the most important news and information automatically from the world’s digital knowledge store in reaction to easy-to-use voice commands. Language-enabled technology will be able to translate automatically or assist interpreters, summarise conversations and documents, and support users in learning scenarios. For example, it will help immigrants to learn German and integrate more fully into their countries' culture. The next generation of IT will also enable industrial and service robots to faithfully understand what their users want them to do and then report on their achievements. This level of performance means going far beyond simple character sets and lexicons, spell checkers, and pronunciation rules. The technology must move past simplistic approaches and start modeling language in an all-encompassing way, taking syntax as well as semantics into account to understand the deeper meaning of questions and generate rich and relevant answers.

However, there is a yawning technological gap between English and German, and it is currently getting wider. After a very successful research record in the 1980s and 1990s, Germany is currently losing its leading role as a language technology champion on par with the English-speaking world. In the major German project Verbmobil, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and German industry from 1993 to 2000, technologies were developed that now constitute the technological foundation of current machine translation systems, Google Translate included. After Verbmobil, funding for language technology research was significantly cut back because research support policies constantly need novel topics. As a result, Germany (and Europe in general) lost several very promising high-tech innovations to the US, where there is greater continuity in their strategic research planning and more financial backing for bringing new technologies to the market. In the race for technology innovation, an early start with a visionary concept will only ensure a competitive advantage if you can actually make it over the finish line. Otherwise all you get is an honorary mention in Wikipedia.

After this decline in language technology research in the German-speaking world, a considerable number of experts and technologies migrated to the USA to commercialise their products. Some of the spin-offs generated by Verbmobil and other projects from the 1980s and 1990s had already been acquired by US companies. Nevertheless, there is still a very high research potential on this side of the Atlantic. Apart from internationally renowned research centres and universities, there are a number of innovative small and medium-sized language technology companies that manage to survive through sheer creativity and effort, despite the lack of venture capital or sustained public funding.

Although Germany has supported important developments in web and search technology, through the THESEUS programme, for example, technology specifically adapted to German was only marginally involved and most R&D results and prototypes used English. Every international technology competition tends to show that results for the automatic analysis of English are far better than those for German, even though (or precisely because) the methods of analysis are similar, if not identical. This holds true for extracting information from texts, grammar checking, machine translation, as well as a whole range of other applications.

Many researchers reckon that these setbacks are due to the fact that, for fifty years now, the methods and algorithms of computational linguistics and research in language technology applications have, first and foremost, focused on English. In a selection of leading conferences and scientific journals published between 2008 and 2010, there were 971 publications on language technology for English and 90 for German, which at least put it in third place behind the Chinese with 228. Publications for Spanish and French technology trailed behind with 80 and 75 articles respectively.

However, other researchers believe that English is inherently better suited to computer processing. And languages such as Spanish and French are also a lot easier to process than German using current methods. This means that we need a dedicated, consistent, and sustainable research effort if we want to be use the next generation of information and communication technology in those areas of our private and work life where we live, speak, and write German.

Summing up, despite the prophets of doom, the German language is not in danger, even from the prowess of English language computing. However, the whole situation could change dramatically when a new generation of technologies really starts to master human languages effectively. Through improvements in machine translation, language technology will help in overcoming language barriers, but it will only be able to operate between those languages that have managed to survive in the digital world. If there is adequate language technology available, then it will be able to ensure the survival of languages with very small populations of speakers. If not, even ‘larger’ languages will come under severe pressure.