02.11.2004 -

UNESCO Sponsored Research Finds WWW Fracturing Into Language Communities

Recent research carried out by Aston University, United Kingdom, for UNESCO shows that the WWW is fracturing into language communities and looks at the question whether the WWW is a medium which is encouraging language diversity at all levels.

By its very name, the World Wide Web suggests that it will disseminate information among all peoples and that it will establish global networks. In the early days of the WWW there was some reason to see the new technology as one way of uniting the world. In theory an individual, an institution or an enterprise can set up a Web page and be read by other users.


However, this theoretical possibility depends on whether Web author and browser have a common language or not. In the early days the majority of Web pages were in English. This was unsurprising given the influence of the English speaking world in the development of the technology.


It also reflected the fact that many of those who had computers able to connect to the Web in the early days were in English speaking countries. Thirdly, WWW browsing was at first the preserve of an educated elite. The likelihood of those who do not have English as their first language having it as a second language is quite high in this group. For a number of years Web site constructors were catering for this readership and English was the most widely used language on the Web.


Recent research carried out by Aston University, United Kingdom for UNESCO shows how and why this situation may be changing. The research did not simply report on the growing numbers of sites in languages other than English, but also attempted to identify trends among users. The major findings fall under two headings:


The WWW is fracturing into language communities


The vertical penetration into societies of hardware ownership, IT literacy and internet access is both a reason for and a result of the spread of official state languages on the WWW.


Understandably people prefer to use their own language where information is available in it, even when they are competent users of English as a second language.


Efforts by state institutions and private commerce to provide information in the language of the citizen and the consumer construct virtual language communities on the WWW.


Website builders in the "standard" European languages (French, German, Italian, etc) spearheaded this trend, but as the technical problems of non-roman alphabet languages were overcome, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese web-sites have increased exponentially.


The technical solutions that allow non-roman language users to browse the web cause fracture at an even deeper level. Web-users do not simply choose to remain in their own language circle through choice, the technology makes it difficult for them to do anything else.


Following on these findings the next phase of the research looked for evidence that the WWW is encouraging the maintenance or revitalisation of smaller and lesser used languages by providing a cheap medium for publication. The research was limited to Europe because pilot projects found lack of hardware among minority speakers in the areas of Africa and Asia that were trialled. There, IT literacy and Internet access were still, at the time of the enquiry, the privilege of educated elites.


Is the WWW a medium which is encouraging language diversity at all levels?


The speakers of some regional and minority languages are using the WWW to publish in these languages and promote them. There is evidence that far more is published in this medium than in traditional print or in audio-visual. However, the extent of the readership is not at all clear. It may well be an activist led activity rather than response to general demand.


The apparent background and origin of the authors of many Websites in regional and minority languages confirm indications that the profile of users of these languages is developing. From the mid 20th century the speakers of regional and minority languages were mostly located in country districts and were often stereotyped as poor, with little education and from the older generations in the community. From the information that can be gleaned about them from their sites, these Website authors do not appear to conform to this stereotype; they are young, educated - and overwhelmingly male.


Where states have accorded official status to minority languages, the effects are disparate. In some cases the new status appears to be encouraging their use, in others the population has not responded in large numbers to this new language opportunity.


The use of regional and minority languages in a symbolic way is widespread. The practice may contribute to the formation or maintenance of group identity even though it plays little role in language maintenance or revitalisation.

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