First and second languages on the net

What language is the net written in? A wikipedia page on the question proposes the following charts. These charts are based on estimates as of May 2011, themselves not fully representative of the full net content – but let’s have a look at them all the same.

This one represents the languages used for the contents of the web:

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.02.34 PM

This one represents the language spoken by web users

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.02.51 PM

Did you notice the discrepancy? English accounts for 57% of all contents – but only 27% of users. And in parallel, Chinese (I suppose this is Mandarin) accounts for 25% of users, but only 5% of contents.

Traditionally, English has been the web’s lingua franca. But non-English contents has grown at a rate much higher than English contents. And it looks like the future of the web will be multilingual. Also, let’s not forget – if 55% of the web is written in English, 45% isn’t, and that 45% represents a considerable amount of contents.

I think the early days of the internet brought with them some utopian vision of a unified world – where everyone would communicate with everyone in the ‘global village’. For non-native speakers of English – like myself – this meant an added burden of study: the doors to the global village were opened only to fluent English speakers. Others remained at the margin.

Now, it looks like more diverse communities are blossoming. But how do these ‘web-linguistic-subcultures’ communicate? Are they equivalent in shape to the ‘global’ English-speaking community, simply different in size? Or is there a qualitative difference between them? Are they radically fragmented, provincial, each individually relating to the core ‘English’ web, but not to each other?

In particular, what is the situation for ‘second-tier’ web languages – German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, French? Debates about multilingualism often seem to jump directly to forgotten rare dialects, omitting to think – more cynically perhaps – about these second tier languages big enough to not be just lumped in an ‘other’ cloud, but not yet big enough to compete with dominant English. Partly, the Marco Polo Project was born of a felt need to create bridges between the Chinese and English webs – the first two languages by users, if not contents. But is there such a need?

And finally, what does it mean that – still – a significant part of internet users are communicating in their second language – while others use their first? Does that create an implicit hierarchy – some sort of post-colonial position of dominance to native English speakers, who can put aside the burden of learning a foreign language, and still access the world? Or does it create a risk for ‘English’, which sees itself more and more invaded by non-native speakers, to the risk of possible depletion – reducing to some watered down ‘globish’?

At the start of this Education and Digital Culture MOOC, these are the questions I’m asking myself – and which I’d like to reflect on further over the next few weeks. I’ve just downloaded a big report by ‘Net.Lang: “Towards the multilingual Cyberspace“, and will post further reflections here. Meanwhile, all comments are very welcome!

15 thoughts on “First and second languages on the net

  1. I hope you’ll allow me to suggest that there is a case for wider use of Esperanto as a second language for us all in cyberspace. What do other people think?

    • Hi Bill, I’d be really interested to hear your case about Esperanto. I haven’t yet heard any good case for it, but would love to explore the idea. I personally do not believe that esperanto is the way ahead – I do not believe that we will ever be able to reach enough critical mass of speakers to make it a desirable language to learn in itself, and can’t see the political will to push for that critical mass to happen first. But I might be wrong. If anything, thinking about Esperanto has this great virtue that it forces us to pose the problem – so why default to English? Please, Bill, I’d love to hear your case!

  2. Reblogged this on 21st Century Global Village and commented:
    As part of my Coursera experience with the course in Digital Cultures, #EDCMOOC, one of the interesting issues I have observed is that there are 40,000 students (60,000 in another of the Coursera course I am attending), from literally all over the world, and EVERYONE has to communicate in English, as English is the language of the course. My research shows that although Mandarin and Spanish have the largest amount of people who are native speakers, English is still the language of the Internet, at least for a couple more decades.

    • Hi Claudia, this is something I’ve also wondered about. MOOCS have been presented as the way forward to knowledge sharing in the digital age on a global scale. But for non-native speakers of English – the majority of net users – there is a significant barrier to access: you can only access one of these global MOOCs through English – and not everyone speaks enough English. This invites some political reflection from us non-native English speakers. Do we want to subscribe to this model, and take it as fair? Or should we issue some sort of protest, and promote a more equal access in the name of equality? To a vast majority, non-English speakers accessing a MOOC are in a position of privilege within their own linguistic community – should they (should we) branch off into the ‘globish’ brave new world, leaving behind those too backward to learn English properly, in the name of some personal right to further education and personal accomplishment? Or is this ethically not an acceptable position?
      Another thing your comment made me note is that the design of the MOOC seems to completely overlook this question. Simple accessibility question: why are there no subtitles to the videos? And on the other hand, these lectures and courses are offered for free. Is it fair to impose such standards on institutions when, after all, they provide a free goods in the public domain – maybe they’ve done enough, and others (us) should take it upon themselves to subtitle and make these MOOCS more universally accessible?
      I hope that we can get further into this question over the next few weeks! Thank you for prompting these reflections!

      • great points you’re making here – especially, to me, the last one – no-one designing and delivering courses ever thinks seriously about the question, which in light of the sorts of statistics you’ve referenced, is rather odd – but par for the course! That’s how universities operate with the international students they recruit… they just assume everyone has the ‘same’ English in mind and can draw on the same resources. My experience is that people want and hope that their English will expand and develop through the exposure to educational opportunities in it, but that teaching usually doesn’t aim to ‘scaffold’ language development through the course, so half of what is said and read is simply not ‘got’ and learning is consequently much less than it could be 😦

      • I wonder how long this ‘I want to learn English’ trend will last. I’m reading the ‘Net-Lang’ report on multiple languages on the net at the moment, and many articles seem to indicate a likely loss of importance for English, replaced by ‘local lingua francas’ – and in parallel, the growing importance of speaking not one’s mother tongue + English, but 3 of the world’s biggest 12 languages, depending on where one works most.
        In science, one thing is underlined in particular: that more and more research is done in languages other than English, and this will put English-native monolingual researchers (and universities employing them) at a disadvantage in the long run, as they will draw on a smaller range of scholarship, and might lose the edge. In turn, this might affect enrollment of international students in English language universities in the US, Britain and Australia, and favour France, Germany, China, Japan… I’ll be looking for more articles on this, as if it is the case, it should be further up strategic thinking in these universities – but maybe it’s just unreasonable fear…

      • I reckon this shift will take a couple of decades at least because so many thousands, indeed millions, of ELLs emerge from established education systems daily, and primary & secondary education systems change very slowly – so however absurd the current situation is, it will remain dominant for quite some time, even as other languages strengthen their position… but it will be an interesting space to watch, most especially online where change is so much faster and formal education system can be by-passed

  3. This is a very interesting post. Many people here in France have to have a certain level of English in order to be promoted to managerial grades for this very reason. That and the necessity for worldwide communication. Something is always lost in translation no matter how good your language skills are.

    • Hi Louise,
      In your experience, are top positions in France all held by French natives who also speak good English, or have you noted that internationals, especially English natives with a decent level of French, can access these??

      • Hi Julien
        That is a good question. I haven’t noticed any English natives, even with excellent levels of French, in top positions. I will ask the question on one of the French English forums and see what comes back.

      • Hi Julien
        So I asked this question on two ex -pat forums in France. The forums have around twenty thousand subscribers. Of course I don’t know how many read my question. After two weeks posting my result is one person who is a manger and one person who knows someone who is. Pretty meagre I would say.

        My own experience – I came to France as a Chartered accountant (ICAEW) with twenty-five years experience. I couldn’t find a job because my qualifications were not recognised.

  4. Yes interesting to think about the globish to come! I hear lots of that as an English teacher in Italy. Well….think about this:

    *we don’t have English dialects
    *we have literature and grammar shared with England
    *we might welcome some borrowed words in the future….language isn’t static after all!

    I won’t worry about goglish as long we we are communicating. Isn’t that the most important thing in the end?


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