Minority languages are often associated with aging rural communities, thought to have fallen out of use or confined to textbooks. Defined simply as a language spoken by less than half of the population in a country, they adapt with the times like any living language, often due to the efforts of enterprising young people.
Recently, many of these languages have found new life from an unexpected source: video game streamers.
On Twitch, streamers from around the world are showcasing indigenous languages as a form of entertainment and activism. Estimates show that we lose one language every two weeks, and half of our 7,000 languages will be extinct by the end of the century, so preserving these tongues and the cultural identities that go with them is crucial. With its easy access, potential for a huge audience, and creatorsâ ability to combine hobbies and language promotion, itâs easy to see why young minority language speakers have turned to Twitch.
Many minority language streamers lack an official language tag for their streams, and these creators see their content lost in the miscellany of the âOtherâ tag, making it hard for other speakers to find, connect with, and enjoy gaming in their own language. Good news arrived for some on May 26th when Twitch announced that it would add over 350 new stream tags, encompassing different ethnic groups and underrepresented communities. The platform was frank about how it has been slow to act on adding the tags users want. However, not all streamers received the opportunity for visibility theyâd been hoping for.
Two groups who missed out were Basque and Galician streamers. Basque, which is native to the semi-autonomous Basque Country straddling southwestern France and northern Spain, is one of the oldest languages still spoken and unrelated to any other in the world. Further along the Iberian Peninsula, the Galician language is spoken by around 2.4 million people in a tiny corner of Spain.
Inspired by the success of the #CatalanLoveTwitch campaign, which saw the minority Romance language added as a streaming language tag, a group of Basque streamers launched #3000Twitz last December, a campaign to see their language achieve the same status. Despite a petition, which is by far the most voted in the Twitch User Voice forums and having now surpassed the number of votes the Catalan petition received, Basque streamers are still awaiting a response from the streaming giant.
IruĂ±e, who streams as arkkuso, is one of the founding members of the campaign. For her, the addition of Basque as a streaming language has broader implications for the survival and visibility of the language. âIt is very important that Basque has a presence online and therefore on social networks,â she says. âNowadays, if youâre not on the internet, you donât exist. The same will happen very soon with languages.â
âNowadays, if youâre not on the internet, you donât existâ
Without the help of a tag to identify streamers, IruĂ±e feels that Twitch has made Basque creators invisible. As a result, the growth of the Basque streaming community has been entirely grassroots, and language activism is part and parcel of her channel. âI believe that at the end of the day, all of us who create content in Basque are [activists],â she says. âFor many of us, the relationship we have with our mother tongue is fundamental for us when it comes to enjoying what we do.â
Fellow streamer and native Basque speaker Eneko found himself in a similar situation. âAt first, I started streaming without knowing anyone on Twitch. And since there was no Basque language tag, I didnât know if there were more people or if they were just very difficult to find. I hit a roadblock because I wanted to stream in Basque, but it meant not reaching anyone,â he says. The current camaraderie between Basque streamers and the popular support their campaign enjoys would have seemed like a fantasy when he first started out.
âWhen you meet people, it is through raids and not by randomly finding someone streaming the type of content you like. There are campaigns calling for double labeling because today, many of us speak several languages, and choosing only one (especially when one is a minority) greatly reduces your ability to reach people. In these circumstances, either you participate in the digital disappearance of your language or you remain visible only to a very small part of Twitch.â
The collective Galician Gamers got involved in a language tag petition around the same time as their Basque neighbors, with the aim of âpromoting the use of Galician, not only as a home life language, but as a language for culture and entertainment as well.â Launched by âTwitch en Galegoâ (âTwitch in Galicianâ), the movementâs social media accounts announce when any Galician-speaking streamer is going live and has exploded from a small group of four or five streamers to having a Discord server with over 200 members with 58 Twitch channels registered.
Given that other less popular language petitions such as Ukrainian have now been added as official streaming languages, IruĂ±e is understandably frustrated. âWe are going to continue creating varied content in Basque, quality content that we want to use to reach more people as we are still a small community. Likewise, we want to create channels of dialogue with Twitch, and for this, we want to work together with the Basque government as well as get Basque streamers who have lots of followers to help us achieve this.â
AdriĂĄn, who goes by Dinav in the Galician Gamers team, is equally undeterred. CRTVG, a regional TV network in Galicia, recently created a Twitch channel and invited the Galician Gamers on to discuss their cause. âThough weâll still act independently, organising events on certain dates to generate movement on the internet and get more people to sign the request, getting the support of Galician public institutions is a path we are open to explore.â
On the other side of the world, a community of streamers of te reo MÄori, the indigenous language of New Zealand, is thriving. Despite suffering a decline after the Second World War, it has been enjoying a renaissance due to revitalization efforts in recent years, including national MÄori Language Week and MÄori immersion schools. According to the 2018 census, 4 percent of the population speaks the language.
Twitch creator Rangiora has lived his whole life through teo reo MÄori. Combining his two passions, he streams under the moniker PrideLandz, and itâs only natural that he would do so in his native tongue. âTe reo MÄori is what connects me to my culture, my ancestors, my family, my environment, and helps to navigate the world I live in,â he shares. âIn the last five years, I noticed I was speaking next to no MÄori because I wasnât surrounded by confident speakers. Streaming in MÄori has provided a space where I can practice, share, and learn about the language more often.â
One of the most fascinating aspects of MÄori streamersâ content is their incorporation of an ancestral language into modern gaming. As he lays waste to beasts on the screen superimposed behind him, Rangiora explains how game titles are translated into te reo MÄori. Call of Duty is composed using the name of the MÄori god of war, translating as something like âa call to arms in the realm of TĆ«matauenga.â
âI feel as if people are learning something every time I streamâ
His streams are open to speakers of all levels and even those just interested in learning more about the culture. âI donât stream entirely in MÄori, but I try to share some knowledge such as having MÄori word of the week or MÄori phrase or saying as something viewers can redeem with their channel points. Hopefully we can inspire more people to speak [the language] because Iâm aware that a lot of MÄori [people] arenât confident due to colonization and the suppression in the past. I feel as if people are learning something every time I stream as we try to normalize MÄori in this space.â
The community of MÄori and Pacific Islander streamers on Twitch have been a huge motivator for Rangiora, so much so that heâs launched a campaign to achieve Partner status on the platform. Spurred on by support from Ngati Gaming, a Discord community of MÄori streamers, the ultimate goal is to launch a MÄori esports organization.
Multiplayer online gaming has been a lifeline for speakers of regional tongues to stay connected over the course of the pandemic. YnChwarae, meaning âIn Play,â is a group of Welsh language streamers. Pre-COVID, they met monthly to livestream games while chatting in Welsh; for the time being, theyâve brought their club online on a weekly basis. âI feel itâs important to be able to express yourself in the language you feel most comfortable. For Welsh as a language to grow quicker, there has to be a space for people to do everything in Welsh and this includes the digital realm,â says Morgan from the group. âGaming can be an extremely sociable activity and the majority of our streams reflect this.â
Despite a gradually increasing amount Welsh speakers over the last decade, thereâs still work to be done in maintaining its survival. âA lot of the crew are not able to use Welsh in their everyday jobs, so streaming with YnChwarae gives them the opportunity to use the language meaningfully doing something they love and not forget it,â Morgan explains. âWe are allowing other Welsh speakers to access Welsh language content on Twitch and be a part of our streams through communicating with us in the chat.â
Lacking in the community size of their Welsh counterparts, streamers of other Celtic languages have pioneered the use of their tongue on Twitch. Gwenn, a streamer from Brittany in the northwest of France, is the only person on Twitch who regularly streams in Breton, the traditional language of the region. As a severely endangered language, Breton faces more challenges than just visibility online. Having lost around 800,000 speakers since 1950, the language is not recognized at a national level by the French state, and so it receives little government support in media or public services.
âItâs important to be able to express yourself in the language you feel most comfortableâ
âI think it is important for Breton to be everywhere Breton speakers are,â Gwenn says. âThere are a lot of young Breton speakers, and they use what young people use: Discord, Twitch, TikTok, Instagram… I think itâs a good thing to grow minority language communities on those platforms.â
Like YnChwarae, the interactive aspect of Twitch is a huge draw. Although happy to help learners, Gwennâs target audience is advanced speakers. âWhen I stream, the beginners can take their time to write out sentences that I will read and correct, and the people who are fluent are happy with just meeting other Breton-speaking people, which could be already rare in the pre-lockdown world and is even rarer now. That is why I usually stream chill games like GeoGuessr that allow [people] to read the chat and have subjects to talk about.â
Twitchâs addition of new tags is bittersweet. âI think itâs good for the communities that will benefit from those new tags. I wasnât expecting Twitch to add minority languages, so Iâm not really disappointed. I will follow what happens for more active language communities like Basque to see if it is something that can be achievable for Breton before trying to spend energy on this.â
Cluicheamaid, the brainchild of Scottish streamer Robbie, is an award-nominated Scots Gaelic video game streaming series including Fall Guys, Among Us, and Dark Souls III all in the ancient Scottish tongue. Classed as definitely endangered on the UNESCO Atlas of the Worldâs Languages in Danger, Robbieâs channel is an opportunity for speakers to use their Gaelic in a world without English subtitles. âStreaming is such a new form of entertainment, and I like giving Gaelic representation on the cutting edge,â he says.
Existing in a linguistic niche has given him a different perspective of what success on Twitch looks like. âThere are fewer folk I can get watching my stream in terms of total numbers, but also I am not in competition with thousands of other video game streamers at the same time. I think when you grow up speaking a minoritised language, you have to adjust your expectations of success. Every stream that I get four or five folk all talking Gaelic in the chat feels like a massive win because that is what it is.â
âI like giving Gaelic representation on the cutting edgeâ
Included in Twitchâs recent launch of new tags is âScottish,â referring streamers from Scotland as opposed to those speaking Scots Gaelic. Irish, Welsh, and MÄori creators found themselves with a new national identifier for their streams. For minority language speakers who fall into these groups, the reaction in terms of linguistic visibility has been ambivalent. âLanguage tags would be more useful to me than nationality tags,â Robbie says. âMy stream will have more in common with Irish-language streamers than most generic âScottishâ streams. So I am hopeful but not expectant that the addition of the new tags is a step towards more easy identification.â
Across the sea in Ireland, Ăna-Minh â or yunitex as she is known on Twitch â has brought the Irish national language to an audience of over 2,500 followers. Like Gwenn and Robbie, she is the only person regularly creating content in her language, but the main aim of her bilingual channel isnât activism. âUltimately, Iâm using it [Irish] as I would in my everyday life, and if that inspires people to become more interested, then thatâs a welcome bonus,â she explains.
She has partnered with language-learning app Duolingo to bring a little more Gaeilge to the world through her streams, be that through livestreaming Final Fantasy or painting and sketching. However, she believes that minority language Twitch creators like herself canât be at the forefront of language revival alone. âToo many times do I see people treating people like me, fluent speakers, like their personal teachers or translators, and itâs not fair. Iâm not a teacher, Iâm just me. I think itâs important that communities donât rely on one person ever to be a beacon, they need to work together to keep the language alive.â
With or without formal support from Twitch, those who stream in minority languages are doing the important work of ensuring that their mother tongue is used among young people, outside of the classroom, and within a modern context â the key ingredients for survival.
AurĂ©lie Joubert, assistant professor of Language and Society at the University of Groningen, is all too aware of this. âThe problem is that for languages to survive, they need to be considered as equal in their function and their communicative value for their own community. Language planners have realized that if kids nowadays speak more Irish, Breton, or Basque at school, it doesnât mean that they use it in the playground. The reality is that a language needs to be perceived positively everywhere. This type of modern online interaction attracts the younger generation who needs to see and hear their minority language being used in modern online platforms.â
Across linguistic groups, one thing remains clear: minority language movements on Twitch are grassroots, community-centric, and driven by small gains. Visibility is essential for minority language creators to grow and thrive. âWe sometimes see minority languages as not fit for modern technology but if they are not part of it in the first place, they cannot develop the corresponding vocabulary needed for it,â Joubert explains. âLinguists increasingly adopt a holistic approach towards language planning and that includes all modes of interaction, social media, and video gaming. It is a battle to lead on all fronts.â