Catalan, my language, is again in a sadly paradoxical situation. While it is spoken by 10 million people in the world, is native in parts of four European states, and is the only language with official status in Andorra —which means it is recognized by the United Nations— it suffers discrimination that is difficult to understand either in qualitative or quantitative terms.
One of the sectors where this situation is having the greatest effects is in language learning applications. The social restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic led to a growth in the consumption of e-learning applications in this area. Programs making it possible to learn a new language from home, either via cell phone or laptop, experienced exponential growth.
Catalan, despite being the 13th most widely spoken language in the European Union and, according to a study by the French Ministry of Culture published in December 2022, the 12th most influential language in the world, has a limited presence in these applications as both a language of origin and of destination. In this respect, we should applaud Mondly, the fourth most downloaded language-learning app (Statista, 2022), which allows users to learn Catalan from 33 different languages. It is also worth mentioning the partial success of the American app Duolingo and the British app Memrise, which allow courses in Catalan from Spanish and English respectively. In the other direction, the ELSA app allows users whose mother tongue is Catalan to learn English. In other e-learning apps —such as Cake, Lingokids, Babbel, EWA, Busuu, Lingvist, Drops, Falou, Speak, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and Lingualift — Catalan simply does not exist. Some companies are more willing to list fictional languages like Klingon and High Valyrian.
However, current analogies and future expectations provide reasons to be positive.
Beyond Mondly, the model of good practice, online translators such as Google Translate and the one created by the University of Cambridge and promoted by Microsoft, provide a very satisfactory Catalan language experience, albeit in a constant process of improvement and refinement. If we consider endangered languages, it is also worth highlighting initiatives such as Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program, offering courses in Native American languages such as Chitmacha, Inuktitut, Inupiak, Navajo, or Mohawk; Pimsleur’s voice coach to learn Ojibwa and Haitian Creole; e-Reo’s commitment to Tahitian and the Drops option for courses in Samama, Hawaiian and Ainu.
Another good opportunity for the future is the emergence of artificial intelligence tools, such as chatbots, which have created the framework for a new working environment characterized by greater versatility and plurality of functions. This new technology, based on long-language models (LLM), allows language capabilities to be extended through the addition of training data sets. For instance, Duolingo has included GPT-4 in its app and, for the moment, offers English speakers who want to learn French or Spanish new capabilities. Along the same lines, Speak has also signed a binding agreement with OpenAI to enjoy further GPT-4 functions.
In short, the absence of Catalan as a learning language of origin and destination, or as an interface preference option on the web, can no longer be excused on technical or economic grounds. It is feasible to incorporate translations and tested, freely accessible corpora of texts. The desire to improve products through internationalization and geolocation also involves the expansion of cultural horizons and linguistic skills, where Catalan is clearly a winning card.
Editor’s Note: This post has been timed to align with Saint George’s Day on April 23, a particularly important holiday for the Catalan language.