The Digital Language Divide

The internet, much like space, is infinite. This opens people up to a limitless way to communicate and thus, language plays an important role in how information is displayed and translated.

The first language used on the internet was almost certainly English. By the mid-1990s it was estimated that English made up nearly 80% of online content.

However dominating it once was, English now represents only one language in an online linguistic elite. English’s cyberspace share has dwindled down to approximately 30%. Languages such as Chinese, Spanish, German and French are all in the top ten online languages. For example, Mandarin grew over 1,000% between the years 2000 and 2010. Out of a roughly 6,000 languages in use today, this top 10 makes up 82% of the total of the content on the internet. Take note of these trends, because, they affect just about all industries and how they do business with the rest of the world. “Any business looking to maximize its reach in the US and abroad should be looking at reaching customers in languages other than English”, said Helen Hamlyn, Vice President of Language Testing International.

Source: Internet World Stats.

The relationship between language and the internet is a growing area of policy interest and academic study. The story emerging is one where language profoundly affects your experience of the internet. It guides who you speak to on social media and often how you behave in these communities. It determines how much – if any – information you can access on Wikipedia. Google searching “restaurants” in a certain language may bring you back 10 times the results of doing so in another. And if your language is endangered, it is possible it will never have a life online. Far from infinite, the internet, it seems, is only as big as your language.

Language and communities

“The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people,” said Tim Berners-Lee.

Language is just as important to building human connections online as it is offline: it forms the basis of how users identify with each other, the lines on which exclusion and inclusion are often drawn, and the boundaries within which communities grow around common interests.

study of the most edited topics in different Wikipedia language editions shows striking differences in what causes controversy in different online language communities. In English “George W.Bush”, “circumcision” and “global warming” made the top 10. In Hungarian, “gypsy crime” was among the top most controversial issues, in French “UFOs” and “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, while in Czech “telepathy” caused disputes. Tim Berners-Lee

On Twitter, although English is the most common language, an estimated 49% of tweets are in other languages, with Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Indonesian users the most active. Analysis of user behaviour shows Twitter users tend to confine their follows, tweets and retweets to those that speak the same language so, while theoretically it’s a platform for global conversations, in reality these interactions are fragmented and often limited by language.

Twitter users in different languages are also likely to express different behaviours. Some languages by their very structure mean that you interact with the platform differently. For example, you can say more in the 140 character limit in Chinese than you can in EnglishResearch has shown that Koreans tend to use Twitter to reply to each other, while German speakers share more URLs and hashtags, and if you are tweeting in Indonesian you retweet roughly five times more than in Japanese. Researchers concluded that different language groups use Twitter for different reasons: some primarily for conversation and others for sharing information.

Research in the Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology analysed bilinguals using Facebook in English and Chinese equivalent, Renren, in Mandarin. It revealed that the same individuals behave in distinct ways on these different platforms. Users on Facebook displayed more individualistic tendencies while on Renren users more frequently shared posts that benefited the wider group.

Portions of this article used from an article by: Holly Young/Guardian

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