Is English becoming endangered online?

This post examines multilingualism on the Internet, some of the anticipated benefits and concerns, as well as the impact of this paradigm on English, which traditionally has been the language of the Internet.

Did you know that: –

  • Approximately 80% of the world’s population does not speak English?
  • In 2000, over 70% of all web pages were in English, but current estimates are that about 50% of all web pages are in English?
  • One can reach and communicate with 82.6% of all the Internet users in the world with just ten languages — English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian and Korean?
  • English language speakers represent only 26.8% of all Internet users worldwide?

Language diversity online, which is frequently referred to as multilingualism, is a rapidly growing phenomenon that promises to transform how the Internet is perceived and used. Traditionally, the prevailing view has been that “English is the language of the Internet”. However, a key tenet of a number of organisations, such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), is that Internet Governance

… should ensure an equitable distribution of resources, facilitate access for all and ensure a stable and secure functioning of the Internet, taking into account multilingualism.

This position has been strengthened by the 2009 initiative by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to approve non-Latin characters in web extensions. The system, known as Internationalised Domain Names (IDN), allows domain names to be written in native character sets, such as Chinese, Arabic and Greek.

Potential impact of multilingualism

As countries transition to become Information Societies, an important indicator of the progress made is local content development. Preparing Internet content in a country’s natural language fosters greater social inclusion and cultural protectionism, particularly with regard to unwritten and undocumented languages. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO),

[i]t is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century…

… Multilingualism fulfils the dual function of facilitating communication between individuals of different cultures and contributing to the survival of endangered languages….

Thanks to Web 2.0, the average person can be a content creator. When this is coupled with an increasingly affordable and accessible Internet, and diverse options available for publishing content online, exponential growth in local content development in the coming years should be anticipated. Hence, increased local content online can strengthen a country’s cultural identity; facilitate communication between its citizens and Diaspora, and encourage the survival of endangered languages.

Some concerns moving forward…

Notwithstanding the significant and extensive benefits that could result from increased language diversity online as outlined above, there are a few concerns and observations that ought to be considered. First, a widely held expectation of the Internet has been that essentially, it would eliminate geographic borders. When the historic predominance of English online is considered, this view would have been true – up to a point. However, there is now a growing fear that through multilingualism, language borders are being established resulting in the creation of silos. It is not yet clear what might be the full consequences of the perceived fragmentation and isolation that is occurring as more languages develop a presence online, but there appears to be a sense of loss for the changes that are occurring.

Second, for those of us who are native English speakers, especially when it is the only language we speak, we may fail to grasp how much content is online, and more importantly, how much information is available that we lack the capacity to use. Again it is emphasised that only 27% of all Internet users in the world speak English, which means that 73% are non-English speakers (Internet World Stats).

We, English speakers, must be jolted from the illusion that the Internet revolves around us! Although English may remain an important language of the Internet, we must appreciate that the growing presence of other languages online, especially Chinese, will inevitably change the current dynamics and emphasis of the Internet.