How Twitch is neglecting Arabic, but helping to preserve minority languages

There's a steady rise in language activists fighting to keep their mother tongue alive on the game streaming platform, which is yet to introduce an interface for the Middle East

Twitch is a live streaming platform for gamers that's popular across the world. Unsplash / Ella Don
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Despite being the highest-grossing sector in the world of entertainment, gaming is still viewed as a waste of time in certain circles. However, with global lockdowns forcing people to stay home during the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been an increase in players picking up controllers. They do so to connect with the rest of the world through online multiplayer games at a time when physical contact has been prohibited in certain places.

Gaming, then, has been a force for good in these testing times.

Preserving minority languages

A platform that has been central to connecting people around the world is Twitch. It’s a service where users can host streams of themselves playing games, and it has recorded an increase in registrations over the past year. Data company Statista reported a peak in January of 9.89 million active streamers on Twitch. The top-ranked user is a gamer named Ninja, who has 16.8 million followers.

While it has a multitude of benefits for gamers, this virtual hub has offered up another, more surprising positive: the preservation of almost extinct languages.

As reported by US tech website The Verge, thousands of like-minded people are working together to keep native languages alive through Twitch streaming. Where once these minority dialects would have been limited to households and circles of friends in far reaches of the world, they are now being showcased through game streaming.

Politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plays 'Among Us' to an audience of almost 440,000 people. Twitch 

Twitch, recognising certain petitions started by motivated activists, introduced 350 new tags recently that help users to find specific content. These include a number of minority languages designed to help those searching to discover certain channels.

However, despite adding tags for languages such as Ukrainian, Twitch overlooked the likes of Basque, Galician and Maori. Basque is one of the oldest languages in the world and is native to the Basque Country, an area that has been seeking independence from Spain for decades. Galician is spoken in a remote part of Spain, while Maori comes from New Zealand and the surrounding Pacific Islands. These three languages in particular have generated popular campaigns that have gained momentum.

Users can set their preferred language when they log in so they’re able to navigate the site in whatever option is easier to read, but of the 29 options available right now, Arabic still hasn’t made the cut

#3000Twitz, the hashtag associated with recognising the Basque language, has been trending across Twitch and other social networks. It's also one of the most-voted-on threads in the Twitch UserVoice community pages.

"Twitch in Galician" is a service that posts across its social media feeds whenever a Galician-speaking streamer is about to go live, and has even made it to the user-generated content of Reddit, the self-proclaimed "front page of the internet".

In the case of Maori, Twitch user Rangiora has been at the forefront of his native language's campaign. His streams are educational and entertaining, and he's being championed by other Maori Twitch users to achieve "Partner" status (official Twitch recognition) on the platform and carry the fight for recognition onwards.

Why is Twitch neglecting the Arabic language?

While the platform no doubt has a mammoth task on its hands to create tags for every language in existence and keep all of its community happy, it will probably meet these demands in the future. However, Twitch has a much bigger and more fundamental problem when it comes to the Middle East.

At present, users can set their preferred language when they log in so they’re able to navigate the site in whatever option is easier to read. But of the 29 options available, Arabic still hasn’t made the cut, despite it being the fifth most-spoken language in the world, after English, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish, with about 274 million speakers, according to Statista. Meanwhile, Hungarian Magyar, which has about 13 million speakers worldwide, is one of the options.

As Twitch users are deeply aware, the lack of Arabic as a default language on the platform is somewhat holding it back in the region when it comes to finding new subscribers.

I think [Twitch] having a fully localised user interface will help me reach a wider audience that won’t struggle with the language
Abdullah Bashan, Twitch user

“A large group of my Arabic audience can't understand English at all,” says Omani streamer Ahmed Al Maimani, who goes by the handle Pisty. “This makes it very difficult for them to navigate the platform, know how to watch my streams or even find my profile. And this affects my viewership greatly.”

Despite this, Al Maimani still plays to 75,000-plus subscribers. But the possibilities of where that could go with a bit more attention to Arabic is sky high.

“Streamers and eSports communities are growing rapidly in the region, with hundreds of new talents given Partner status on a daily basis,” Al Maimani explains. “Many bigger ones [Arabic users] reach the top spots globally with their streams, too.”

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by fellow streamer Abdullah Bashan, or Abdullah Reviews, as he is known online. “I am mainly a YouTuber as my biggest fan base is there, since it is fully localised in Arabic,” Bashan says. “When I decide to make a livestream on Twitch, I notice a lot of my fans lose interest in it. I think [Twitch] having a fully localised user interface will help me reach a wider audience that won’t struggle with the language. Especially for younger people as my streams are family-friendly.”

The National reached out to Twitch to find out if there were any plans to rectify this issue, but a representative said they were unable to comment at this time.

Although these groups have different immediate targets – smaller communities looking for recognition and GCC users' need for Arabic as a default setting – the long-term goals are the same: to preserve languages and unique dialect through Twitch.

We live in a fast-moving society where things are easily forgotten about, but while this hyper-digital age has increased the pace at which technology and ideas are thought up, actioned or lost, it’s warming to know that playing video games is also enabling people to connect and come together for important causes, even when times are tough.

Updated: October 19, 2021, 5:48 AM