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Put Out Your Tongue and Say 'Aaah'. Is the Internet Suffering from Acute 'Englishitis'?
by Daniel Pimienta
January 30, 2002 - It has become a commonplace to say that the Internet was invented in the United States, and that English language and culture reign over it absolutely and irreversibly. The statistic that 80% of all web pages are in English is even today very often quoted in support of arguments which claim to be beyond dispute. If so, the only option common mortals are left with is to learn this language as fast as possible, or else be faced with having to abandon using this extraordinary tool for accessing information which is the Internet. Those who are insensitive to questions of cultural diversity see this convergence as useful for the society of the future, the information society, of which the Net is seen as its most advanced platform...

This unsubtle, yet widespread notion, which moreover is not exclusive to America, gives an impression of inevitability which carries the risk that potential creators of content for the Internet could be led to give up the idea.

But what if the official version of the history of the Net put about by the media turned out to have been afflicted by selective amnesia with regard to the many notable achievements which have been accomplished in the rest of the world?

And what if this alleged absolute domination by the English language and its cultural implications were simply a transitory phenomenon, in its early stages and therefore reversible?

The unofficial history of the Internet is not about technology!

When people talk about the history of the Internet, a kind of semantic confusion takes hold, supporting a simplistic vision of the chronology of events, to the detriment of the period which preceded the generalization of networks, and thus emphasizing the technological dimension over the sociological.

Yet we must distinguish the network, which is made up of services and users, from the network protocol, i.e. the set of rules laid down to automate those services and the way they are presented to users. If it is true that "Internet", in the shape of the TCP-IP communication protocol, was conceived by the United States Defense Department, "the Internet" represents all the networks which it connects together, whatever their protocol. During the entire time when the Internet protocol was marginal (from the seventies to 1991), there were episodes in the history of networks which represented essential non-technological contributions that it would be unjust to forget.

In this way, the university network charter Bitnet/Earn which defined the right to communication, the formulation of "netiquette", the creation of the conference mechanism "listerv" or the organization of USENET discussion groups all played a far more important social role than mapping check bits in the TCP-IP protocol ever did. By providing a basis for the rise of virtual communities, meeting places, group communication and information sharing, those initiatives we have just quoted formed the foundations of a "networking culture", well before the appearance of the Net. And let us not forget that the HTML protocol was invented in Europe (at CERN) and that the concept would have probably emerged in the context of any other communications protocol.

To the credit of the TCP-IP protocol, we should emphasize the exceptional capacity of its architecture to adapt to changing needs; this was made possible at least as much by the transparent democratic procedures that were put in place to manage change (sociological elements) as by the openness of the design of TCP-IP (technological element).

In fact, the decisive roles in the development of networks were historically played by researchers (and also pioneers working on development in the countries of the South) who from the late 1970s onwards learned how to utilize tools made and used by computer manufacturers. By the beginning of the 1990s, research networks had reached a critical mass of over a million users; then, in a few years, from 1994 to 1998, their sphere of activity changed from being a circle of initiates and rapidly became a media in its own right, a preferred tool of economic globalization. The relative importance of those who had created the last Utopia of the century, a place where information could flow freely, and where sharing and solidarity had taken over the initiative from trade, quickly declined.

However, their ideas remained influential, and represented one of the underlying factors of the difficulties experienced by certain "start-ups" which tried to impose their vision without taking account of the culture of networks... and thus became "end-downs"!

If it is true that English is the preferred language of scientific publications, the emerging culture of the research networks resulted on the other hand from the actions of men and women from all continents, from North and South, and from a variety of languages and cultures. The culture of networks which has emerged from their interactivity continues to exist and to develop within citizen or community networks, alongside the commercial culture which has largely taken root on the Web.

The presence of languages on the Internet

With regard to actual presence of languages on Internet, researchers have unfortunately left those active on the market free to impose their own figures without presenting documentary evidence which would make it possible to form an opinion about the validity of the results they announce.

Defending cultural and linguistic diversity in cyberspace is one of the concerns of Funredes, an NGO which has devoted itself since 1988 to the subject of how to use the Internet for development. Within this framework, and in order to contradict simplistic and pessimistic statements about the absolute, unstoppable predominance of English within the network, Funredes has been creating and developing methods and procedures to measure the presence of latin languages and cultures on the Internet since 1996.

The method was perfected in 1998 thanks to the contributions of the Union Latine; the entire set of results and methodological data can be consulted on http://funredes.org/lc.

What we have learned from this look into languages on the Internet is that the frenzy is abating, and that it should continue to fall:

  • Since we began our diagnosis, the relative presence of English on the Web has declined from 75% in 1998 to 50% today (in terms of the percentage of web pages in English).

  • The presence of each language on the Web appears to be proportional to the number of Web users who speak that language (at least for the 7 languages we studied).

  • The growth in the number of English-speaking users has slowed and is close to saturation, whereas numbers in other linguistic areas are often growing very strong (with the Chinese in the lead).

  • The number of quotations of people who reflect the cultural values of the latin languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Rumanian) in various fields of culture (literature, the visual arts, music and song, etc.) has risen by more than 50% in the last three years. This shows how cultural presence on the Web is proportional to the presence of the corresponding language, and thus follows a similar growth pattern.


    All these indicators show that the initial transitional period on the Internet, marked by the absolute domination of English, has ended. Of course, English, as the preferred language of exchange in the scientific and commercial world, will maintain its very considerable advantage, but its advantage will no longer be absolute, since only slightly more than 10% of human beings master English as their first or second language!

    Thus, the advantage among Net surfers will soon no longer belong to English-speaking users but rather to those who master several languages. Multilingualism is without a doubt the future of the network, and there is a pressing need for better quality translating programs.

    Cyberspace is open to all languages and all cultures: but we must produce content in our own language and which reflects our own culture, without feeling inferior or pessimistic!

    The studies undertaken by Funredes relate to the latin languages, many of which are major planetary languages (the total number of speakers of the latin languages is higher than that of English speakers). There is however cause for concern for those languages which are spoken little outside their locality (these exist on all continents, and in greater diversity in Africa).

    Each culture must contribute its "storey" to the virtual tower of Babel. Diversity is not to be feared; on the contrary, it is the basis of the capacity of humankind to survive, even as it adapts to new contexts.

    Daniel Pimienta is Director of FUNREDES (Fundacion Redes y Desarrollo), a non-governmental organization dedicated to the dissemination of new information and communication Technologies in developing countries, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean

    Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.