Many people envision the Internet as a wide open frontier — one where information can be easily accessed by only a few simple keystrokes and a mouse click here and there. However, if you imagine the Internet this way then you’re approaching it with the naivety and arrogance of an English speaker.
With English as the top language of the Internet, you may have gotten used to scores of pages of content popping up with every search on Google.
However, it is not like that for everyone. The truth is the language you speak has a great deal to do with how you experience and navigate the Internet. Certain languages are well represented on the Internet, the vast majority of the rest, much less so.
The first language used on the Internet was English. Halfway through the 1990s, English constituted 80% of Internet content. But from once dominating the worldwide web, English today is simply one language in a near-handful of elite languages that make up most of the content of the Internet.
Digital content available in English presently constitutes 30% of the total cyberspace. Chinese, Spanish, German and French, on the other hand, are all in the top 10 languages online. Some of these have grown exponentially: Chinese, for instance, has grown by 1277% percent between 2000 and 2010. Out of an approximate pool of 6,000 languages spoken today, the following top 10 account for 82% of total Internet content.
How the Internet influences the language you speak and vice versa is a subject of academic study and probing. Your language dictates how much time you spend, if any time at all, on Internet research, social media, forums, and other online representations of human communities. Searching for a certain keyword on Google may generate 10 times the results in one language over another. And if your language is a unique and rare one, you will not know what surfing the Internet is like. Far from a seemingly limitless technology, the Internet is only as expansive as the popularity of your language.
Information Inequality Online
“The famous engine [Google] recognizes 30 European languages, only one African language and no indigenous American or Pacific languages, ” said Daniel Prado, a researcher of linguistic diversity, on available online languages in 2012.
Despite Google having openly announced a commitment to expanding the number of languages searchable on the online search engine, many obstacles remain to make the platform more diverse in terms of languages. Many languages exist only orally or without a standardized orthography and the gap between what languages are available on Google — slightly more than 130 — and the number of languages that exist in the world — more than 6,000 — is massive.
In cities and areas where there are several ethnic groups co-existing, the unequal field that is the Internet rewards certain languages over others. A research study conducted by Mark Graham and Matthew Zook looked at Google searches made in Arabic, Hebrew and English in the West Bank. They found that Google Arabic searches in Palestinian areas on average return only 5% to 15% of the number of SERP results that the same keywords generate in Hebrew. Google searches in English also generated between four and five times more results than in Arabic. Such an imbalance between linguistic groups means the certain communities access more knowledge, news, and opinions than others, which retards overall education.
Massive information vacuums exist among the non-dominant languages of the Internet, where entire communities of citizens, locations, and cultures don’t appear online.
“Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others,” said Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute.
In other words, according to Graham, the dominant languages of the Internet, which are mostly from the West, speak for those who do not have a dominant language on the Internet.
But even among languages that have representation on the Internet, segregation is deepened as search engine searches prompt people to act on the information they obtain. The Graham and Zook West Bank Study found that a search for the keyword “restaurant” in Arabic, Hebrew and English generated different results for each tongue. This means the speakers in each language are sent to socially segregated restaurants in the same city.
“It isn’t good enough for Google to throw their hands in the air and point to their algorithms when asked why data are mediated and presented in certain ways. Whether they like it or not, they shape how millions of people interact with their cities,” noted Graham.
How Translations Help Bridge the Divide
Competent translation services and technologies are the only solutions to bridging the barriers of online languages. New business markets and new information for entire communities spring up when translators take on the task of translating the content available in the dominant languages.
Multilingualism also helps to forge communication between users of one language with another. Scott Hale, an Oxford Internet Institute data scientist was able to determine that despite only 11% of people being multilingual on Twitter, and 15% on Wikipedia, these individuals tended to be more active by creating and editing more content on both platforms. By teaching more people to be multilingual, the multilingual people naturally create multiple information bridges between community pockets of different languages and are influential.
A Decline of Languages?
Will the Internet help cause an extinction of most languages? According to Andras Kornai, in his paper Digital Language Death, 95% of all languages will never appear on the Internet. The article claims to “present evidence of a massive die-off caused by the digital divide”. So long as popular search engines and communities don’t work to extend the reach of the Internet to disenfranchised communities through translation, the grip of the select group of languages dominating the Internet will continue to hold fast.
In 2011, the United Nations announced access to the Internet as a human right. However, so long as a lack of community effort exists to translate web content to non-dominant languages, this language
barriers will continue to limit access to the Internet. What do speakers of non-dominant languages have to do to have a presence online? One solution is to ask providers of information, products, and services to localize their content. Educating the speakers of the dominant Internet languages on how their content needs to be localized would also go a long way to converting the Internet into an egalitarian, inclusive public space that truly connects people around the world.