A few points before getting started:
- Whatever I say in this post about the content on YouTube in various languages comes entirely from actually browsing YouTube.
- I do not speak all the languages I talk about, and I don’t have enough time to watch all the content in each language, so the information I present is not 100% accurate.
- However, I tried to be as thorough as possible.
- “Relevance” is not a standard term used in sociolinguistics (at least not the way I’ve used it in this post)
- The graphs in this post are relative (there’s no way I can give concrete numbers) so keep that in mind when you see them.
Ok, now we can start. Enjoy!
Language vitality is demonstrated by the extent that the language is used as a means of communication in various social contexts for specific purposes. The most significant indicator of a language’s vitality is its daily use in the home. A language with high vitality would be one that is used extensively both inside and outside the home, by all generations, and for most, if not all, topics.
For a language to survive, the older generations have to teach it to the younger generations until they reach proficiency and then continue the cycle. The only things that can break this cycle are the unwillingness to teach, and the unwillingness to be taught (or more broadly, the unwillingness to use a language). This unwillingness usually stems from one of the most important characteristics of the language: prestige.
Prestige can roughly be defined as the perceived status of a language by the people who use it (perhaps more importantly those who do not use it). This perceived status is related to a characteristic of a language that is a bit more tangible: relevance. You can gauge the relevance of a language by answering questions like “does everyone around me speak it?”, “can it get me a job?” and “is it prevalent in the media?”
You can think of the difference between prestige and relevance like this: A relevant language is one that everybody speaks. A prestigious language is one that everybody wants to speak. Prestige and relevance are two sides of the same coin, and they both affect, and are affected by the vitality of a language.
In this post, we’ll be looking at language use in the media, focussing specifically on an obscure website that most of you probably have never heard of.
YouTube is one of the best places online to see the development of language communities because it is arguably the most social of all the social media websites. And the types of videos on YouTube range from traditional/passive/one-way media (like news, films, etc.) to more modern/interactive (like vlogs, gaming, etc.)*, which allows us to see language use across the entire spectrum, as well as in both written and spoken forms.
*Of course, pretty much all YouTube videos are interactive in the sense that people can give feedback and share their thoughts. When I say that news and films are “passive”, I mean that it is still very much information coming at you. The difference with things like vlogs is that they are created for YouTube, meaning that there is direct interaction with the creator of the content.
The following is a representation of the media spectrum showing roughly where each medium fits.
If a language is being used across the entire spectrum, you can safely say that that language is in a good position (in terms of relevance, and therefore vitality). If that language is only used at one end of the spectrum, there isn’t any immediate cause for concern, but you could say that the language is not in the best position it could be. If the language is nowhere to be found, it doesn’t mean that it is on the verge of death. It could mean that the language is irrelevant, and its speakers prefer to use another one online, or it could mean that the speakers of that language are not able to access the internet.
For the purpose of this post, I’m more interested in seeing content at the low end of the spectrum. This end gives you a better perspective on how people feel about their own language in relation to electronic media and by extension how it fits into the modern world.
So let’s go through some languages and see how they are used on YouTube.
The Big Boys
These are the languages which rule the internet. It’s no surprise that they are so prevalent on YouTube considering that they all have a huge number of speakers.
Of course, we have to start with English, which is the de facto official language of the whole internet. In English, you can get pretty much any kind of content from YouTube, be it news, movies, music, or more interactive stuff like vlogs and gameplays. Not to mention the enormous number of TV-for-internet type stuff.
I don’t need to go into detail with the contents of English YouTube, because most of you would be familiar with it already. However, one interesting thing to note is that the proportion of English language films on YouTube is relatively low compared to other languages. This is probably due to other countries being very lax when it comes to copyright.
A graph of English YouTube might look something like this:
Spanish speakers make up the second largest block of YouTube users. On Spanish YouTube, you can get pretty much everything you get on English YouTube. Despite the large number of Spanish speaking countries, people are very often able to find content from their own country (particularly at the lower end of the media spectrum), whether it be from one of the larger ones like Mexico or Argentina, or the smaller ones like Guatemala.
Because of the large number Latin Americans in the USA, there are even channels which specifically target them, like this one whose parent channel is buzzfeed (watch the video, it’s funny), and this one.
Here‘s a video which looks at the rise of Spanish speaking YouTubers.
People tend to overlook the fact that Portuguese is a major world language, probably due to the fact the name immediately makes you think of that “small insignificant country next to Spain”. However, thanks to the huge number of people in Brazil, the majority of whom have internet access, Portuguese YouTube is very big; not as big as Spanish YouTube, though.
While German YouTube is a lot smaller than English and Spanish YouTube, you can still find the same kinds of content. However, the options are much more limited, particularly when it comes to professional-quality stuff (for example the German equivalents of smosh or Vsauce). But everything is still there, from educational stuff, to news, to gaming, to vlogs.
It is worth noting that most German speakers also speak English. And with English being the global language that it is, you wouldn’t think that German would be so prestigious. Though that may be true to an extent, this has had no effect on the relevance and vitality of German.
French YouTube is probably a bit bigger than German YouTube, with some YouTubers like Cyprien (his videos have English subtitles, if you want to watch) having millions of subscribers; on par with his English speaking counterparts. Still, the options are relatively limited.
The majority of French speaking YouTube users come from Europe or Canada. However, they represent only around half of French speakers. The remainder are mostly in Africa, where only a small percentage of the population has access to the internet (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa; percentage of internet uses are higher in the northern French speaking Arab countries). If internet usage rates in those areas were the same as in developed countries, French YouTube may be much bigger than it is today. I say may because we don’t know whether people would prefer to use French or their native African language (once again it’s a question of relevance) For now though, there are plenty of movies like this one coming out of that region.
The Smaller Boys
These are the languages which have some presence on YouTube, but are not as widespread as those above. Most of these languages have small to medium sized numbers of speakers. This obviously isn’t a complete list.
Even though there are a few movies, some news channels and some other TV-for-internet type things, the majority of the content on Czech YouTube seems to be from the lower end of the spectrum (Czech out this channel (pranks) and this channel (vlogs)). This tells me that the language is relevant even though it is not the largest.
Like Czech, the content on Hebrew YouTube content comes mainly from the lower end of the spectrum (see some Hebrew “boyfriend tags” here and here). The interesting thing about this is that Hebrew was a dead language between the 5th and 19th centuries, meaning it has returned to relevance within a relatively short time frame.
The number of people who speak Italian is much higher than for Czech and Hebrew. But like those two languages, Italian YouTube consists mainly of lower end content. Gameplays seem to be especially popular. The higher end content comes in the from of Italian movies.
Thai is what I would call an up-and-coming language. The number of speakers is a little bit lower than for Italian, but with the rapid development of Thailand, the Thai language is setting itself up to be increasingly important on the word stage. This relevance is reflected on Thai YouTube, where you can find vlogs, news and movies. There does seem to be lack of mid-spectrum content, but as you may have noticed, that is typical of these not-so-huge languages.
You might be thinking “Arabic? That language with around 400 million speakers which is an official language of the UN? Why is it one of the ‘smaller boys’?”
Well, it’s because of the way Arabic is used. At the lower end of the spectrum, people prefer to speak in their own dialects, which might as well be different languages. At the high end, most movies are also in dialect, but documentaries and news use the standard variety; not to mention all the religious stuff. And to be fair, Arabic is one of the larger “smaller boys”.
Despite the Arabic identity crisis that has been taking place the past few years (see this blog and this TED talk), Arabic YouTube tells a more hopeful story. There are vlogs, films, news and for once, there’s TV-for-internet!
Not only that, but there’s also content from all parts of the Arab world, for example this beauty vlogger from Morocco (whose Arabic sounds so French I can’t even tell what she’s speaking), this Tunisian guy and these Saudi guys.
So if anyone tells you that Arabic is dying, they’re not completely correct.
The Where-Are-They Boys
These are the languages in which you would expect more content than you actually find.
I’m going to lump all Indian languages into this one section because the situation is pretty much the same for all of them. The situation being that there is practically no content at the low end of the spectrum. That was the case before, at least. Now there are more and more channels like this one (watch their videos, some have English subtitles), but even that is more TV-for-internet than it is pure low end.
The interesting thing is even though they may be speaking in their own language, everything is written in English. And if something is written in a different language, very rarely is it in the actual script of that language (But this varies from language to language). This applies to the videos as well as the comments. It’s funny because Indians are pretty much the only people who do this. The rest of the world is happy to comment in their own language.
The best way to summarise that end of Indian YouTube content is that it reflects the way wealthy Indians use language; wealthy Indians because they are the ones who have internet access, and since wealth and status is strongly linked to knowledge of English, there’s going to be a lot of English usage.
There is also the high end of Indian YouTube, which is much better than for most other languages in terms of films. Searching “Hindi/Bengali/Punjabi/Gujarati/Marathi/Tamil/Telugu/Kannada/Malayalam film” will not only give you a whole heap of results, but it will give you results from the current year. Indians’ love of cinema has also trickled down into the lower end of the spectrum, with short films also being fairly common (the production quality of some are even on par with full length films).
Overall, Indian YouTube doesn’t paint the best picture of the vitality of Indian languages. They’ll really need to fight if they want to stay relevant.
Finally, we get to Dhivehi. It’s not the most widely spoken language in the world, but a large chunk of the people who speak it have internet access. For this reason, it is quite disappointing to see the lower end of Dhivehi YouTube being so empty. There’s Space Parade; it’s TV-for-internet but it’s a start. Most other people who make the typical vlogger/youtuber type videos (like Ib Nawaf, Aal Naseer and Movie Em) speak English.
But I did come across this guy. He makes videos in Dhivehi (mostly), but it’s a “genre” that I wasn’t expecting at all (in retrospect I should have expected it, because Maldives/politics/activism). I don’t know what exactly to call it, but it’s quite common on English YouTube (see here, here, here and here). You might not agree with all his views, but at least he’s expressing them in his own language.
Perhaps there is hope for Dhivehi after all. Like I said at the beginning of the post, just because a language isn’t represented at all ends of the spectrum, it doesn’t mean that it’s dead. Maybe we just need to give it a bit more time. Still, I want to see people vlogging in Dhivehi, or making how-to videos, or doing challenges, or even more social activism. There is an audience, and I know there people out there who want to make these videos. And if there isn’t anyone, who knows, maybe I’ll have to start Thatmaldivesvlog.
- A language does not need a whole lot of speakers to be relevant. Case in point: Hebrew and Czech.
- However, having a whole lot of speakers can help. Case in point: English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.
- But that is not always true. Case in point: Hindi.
- A nation will abandon its language if it sees more opportunities for development in another language. Case in point: India.
- However, it is possible for a nation to become developed without abandoning its language. Case in point: Thai.
- And even if the nation adopts a second language, its first language does not have to fade into irrelevance. Case in point: German.
- Language usage in high end media does not always reflect usage at the low end. Case in point: Arabic.
- The low end of the media spectrum reflects everyday usage of a language more so than the high end.
- Therefore it is the low end of the media spectrum which can be used to determine the health of a language.
- The low end of Dhivehi YouTube leaves a lot to be desired.
- Therefore, Dhivehi is not as healthy as it should be.
- But there is still hope for Dhivehi, because of points 1, 5 and 6, so long as we avoid the pitfalls of point 4.
I’ll leave you with these videos which showcase the weird and wonderful things you can find on international YouTube (and gifs to entice you into watching them).
- An opera in Chinese Gibberish (very funny)
- A Russian news tongue-twister. Watch at least the first minute. She’s quite impressive.
- A catchy Swahili song (with English subtitles)
- What Mumbaikars say (in English and Hindi) Best part at 0:39
- An Indonesian prank
- A Turkish kid singing an Indian song.
- The video that offended Thai people (in English)
- North Koreans know how to put on a show. Seriously, the costume changes are amazing – especially at the end! (it makes you forget that it’s North Korea)
- A Pashto singer from Pakistan who gives Suneetha a run for her money. Best moves at 1:15 and 1:37.
- Ugandan dancing (with twerking thrown in for good measure)
- The Crazy Lady (This is hilarious!)
- A Brazilian comedy channel (with English subtitles)
- An adorable French girl