Since its earliest days, the Internet filled us with the hope of uniting all of humanity. With information traveling at the speed of light, we thought, geographic location wouldn’t matter and anyone who shared our interests would be within reach.
But there’s an age-old problem working against our utopian dreams of the web uniting the world: the language barrier. After all, it doesn’t matter what you have access to if you can’t read it.
In the first couple decades of the Internet, we had a simple, if unsustainable, solution. Most people used English — even if it wasn’t their native language.
Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of the multi-lingual blog network Global Voices, observed this phenomenon as recently as 2004. He was at dinner with a couple dozen bloggers in Amman, Jordan who were chatting away in Arabic.
“But almost all of them were blogging in English at that point,” Zuckerman explains. “Out of that group of people that I had dinner with, a lot of those people blog in Arabic now. And I’ve gone back and talked to some of them… and one said to me, ‘When we were trying this in 2004 there were very few Arabic speakers online, and we just couldn’t write for that audience. But now our friends, our peers, our neighbors are all online. That’s who we want to reach.’”
The numbers support this anecdote. According to Internet World Stats, Arabic users on the Internet have increased by more than 2,000 percent over the past decade. Chinese will soon replace English as the most-used language on the web. And dozens of other languages are experiencing huge growth. On the one hand this is great: the more people who come online, the better. But as they join the web using different languages, how do we stop the internet from fracturing along language lines?
Many think a big part of the solution will be machine translation. Translation software has been around for decades with a mediocre track record, but Google’s translation service, Google Translate, is producing impressive results and improving quickly.
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