By Tom Hayes
“We have to open the Internet to more languages!” That was the lament roiling about this week’s meeting of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) governors in Hyderabad, India. The arbiters of all things Net were complaining that English, followed by Mandarin and Spanish, are the dominant languages on line, accounting for one-half of all users. Use of the world’s other 6,912 known living languages (many with no written form) account for the other half of the traffic.
The implication seems to be that allowing English to be the lingua franca of the Web is somehow acceding to American cultural imperialism. It is hard to believe that people who should know the Internet the best are still so ignorant of how it works.
First, the Internet remains a young network, as networks go. And, like any network in nature, it operates along a biological pattern: it grows by being spread from one receptive person to another. The Net was born in the USA and most of the early adopters were American or English-speaking academics from around the world-and at its release to the PC-using public (as you may recall the computer used to be the tool of choice to get on the Internet) was greatest in the industrialized corners of the globe where English is the de facto language of business. So, the early start by English speakers online is hardly nefarious even if you could control such things.
Second, per trajectory, by growing at 700 percent a year, Mandarin will soon become the most-used language online. Will we see a sturm und drang over Chinese cultural imperialism? Doubtful. Third, what is growing faster than the diversity of languages used on line are the many ways to translate text to any language you like (albeit not quite perfectly yet). Downloads and services like Babelfish, Babylon and Free-Translator are examples. Why learn every language on earth when the massive computational power at our disposal can do it for us?
Okay, so even with the power of the web to provide your translations, you still want to become multilingual for your personal growth and amusement-don’t decry the Web-use it. Check out a fascinating new service called iTalki.com which allows the world’s poor to teach their local languages to others for a few small fee. More than any effort to dictate the wider adoption of languages on the Web, iTalki deomnstartes the best of Net culture: the service may promote wider use and even preservation of local languages and dialects; it will help the world’s abject poor make a little money; it may promote better awareness and understanding of the world’s-and the Net’s-many cultures.
Finally, if you’ve ever received a text or a Twitter tweet from one of your kids, you know that English per se is not really the language of the Net, but rather is just the basis for a new bastardized language that is being born as we speak. One real contender to be the new lingua franca of the Net era is Globish: it reduces the 260,000 words of the English language down to a 1,500 word lexicon. Globish is easier to learn for non-English speakers and fits perfectly into the fast-paced, micro-blog culture that is naturally forming around the Net.
No, the governors at ICANN need not despair over the diversity of languages being used on the Web. But, what should get their attention is how little control they have over any of it anyway.
Tom Hayes is the publisher of Edgelings and author of the business best-seller, Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business (McGraw-Hill).