Language diversity on the Internet: an overview

Language diversity can itself be interpreted in a number of different ways. The difficulty in measuring the use of languages on the Internet is partly due to the lack of regulation and the phenomenal growth. The area of Internet indicators has largely been left to business marketing and now there is a need for high quality academic analysis.

Telecommunication companies who profit from the demand for communication and technology services do not have a special responsibility to bear in mind the linguistic diversity of the countries whose markets they serve. Hardware and software companies have a similar influence on the linguistic make up of the Internet, by producing computers with keyboards, displays and operating systems that favour particular languages.

The acts of computer companies locked in competition for market dominance have a detrimental effect on the climate of multilingual computing and on-line linguistic diversity. In such circumstances, the ethno-linguistic awareness of telecommunication companies, computer companies and Internet governing authorities will begin to broaden only if a critical mass of under-represented ethno-linguistic groups can command their attention.

Hence, the general issue of emergent linguistic bias requires close monitoring on global, regional and local scales. The measurement of languages on the Internet can be used as a paradigm for many issues of measuring content. To put it bluntly if we cannot measure this seemingly simply dimension of Web site content what can we measure?

We need to move to develop more intelligent indicators. Measuring the languages in the overall number of pages on the Web increasingly presents challenges caused by the sheer volume of Web content, but just because a page is on the Web does not mean it is used, or even ‘visited’. If we are to truly measure the impact of the Information Society, we need to have statistics on how the Internet is used, and by whom. In this view Web pages are simply the supply side, in all its linguistic homogeneity or diversity, and not necessarily a reflection of use and demand.

In an oversupplied market of say English language Web pages offering a variety of services, many poor quality sites may receive few or no visits. It is also a common observation that many Web sites remain without updates or modification for years.

From an economic perspective the Web has some aspects of a free market and some market failures. Web sites are developed to meet the needs of a particular audience. If there is little domestic Internet access, business Web sites will be orientated to an external foreign market, and hence will be written in an international language like English. On the other hand low usage of an Internet site, and low maintenance costs of Web sites mean that they may continue to exist and be registered on search engines long after the last visit of a potential user. Ideally we need analysis of ‘useful’ sites and visitors who use them.

Even within the limitations of the present studies these problems indicate how little statistics on the percentage of people with computers, or the number of Internet subscriptions (both Millennium Development Goals indicators) say about the fundamental changes in information exchange brought forward by the Information Society. If we set aside the arguments for or against English dominance we can see in this volume the rapid expansion of Internet use in Asia and hence the growth in Asian language Web sites, as well as the way in which the expansion of the World Wide Web has brought together the ‘neo-Latin’ communities to consider their place in a global knowledge society. It is important to underline that the digital world provides an enabling environment for as many languages as possible. This could ensure true language digital inclusion.

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