English – still the language of the Internet?

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For many years, English has been considered by many to be the primary language of the World Wide Web.  In an increasingly globalised world, is this still a valid assumption?


Is English really the language of the Internet?

English is widely recognized as the language of international business, so it is easy to see why it might also be considered the language of the web.  It is, however, quite hard to actually back this assertion up with data because, after all, how do you actually measure what is the language of the Internet?


One strategy is to look at which are the most visited websites around the globe and which languages these are published in.  Using this technique, it would seem that over the last couple of decades English has been dominant.  Part of the reason for this is that the Internet was developed and launched by English speakers, and English speaking countries have until recently had the highest numbers of Internet users.  However, looking at popular websites may not necessarily be a fair test, particularly if their popularity is determined using search engines.  Many of the most commonly used search engines have been designed in English, and give English websites higher prominence in their results.


The consensus seems to be that English has had something of a head start, and is still largely dominant.  So what does this mean?


Is this is a good thing?


There are advantages to having a single dominant language of the Internet.  The web is an extremely global idea, and is accessed and used by people from almost every country on the planet on a daily basis, all speaking different languages.  Having a lot of content in all languages means that there is a certain degree of equality and simplicity, rather than having sites having to be in thousands of different dialects.  English is very widely spoken as a second language, so perhaps in that respect it’s a good choice.


However, there are also definitely downsides.  In some respects English can be seen to be “forcing out” other languages, and for those who don’t speak it, access to the web is therefore limited.  An argument has even been made that the lack of language diversity online is contributing to the decline and eventual extinction of “endangered” indigenous languages.


Is this changing?


Globalisation is an ever-continuing and seemingly unstoppable process, so what does this mean for the future of languages on the Internet?  Will English continue to dominate?


In 2009, a study released by UNESCO looked at the languages of websites over a period from 1996 to 2008[1].  The results of this study are clear: in 1998 the percentage of websites in English was around 75%, but by 2005 this had dropped dramatically to around 45%.  Now this 45% may still be a way ahead of the next most popular language (most estimates say Russian at around 6%), but the trend is plain to see.


Some of the other popular languages online are now Russian, German, Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese.  If things continue to follow this pattern then it seems that English may soon lose its dominant position.


What does this mean for global businesses?


The increasingly diverse range of languages being used online creates both a challenge and an opportunity for businesses wishing to trade in a global marketplace.


For one thing, foreign language consumers are able to become more selective about where they buy their products and services online, and businesses that do not have multilingual content on their websites will start to lose out to others that do.  This means that transcreating content in local languages now needs to be an integral part of any effort to capture business in a foreign market.


The positive side to this is that having a multilingual website is a relatively easy way for companies to make themselves stand out from the competition.  Translating and localising your online content is relatively inexpensive, and will massively help you to connect with your potential customers in a language they understand.


So, yes, for now at least we can say that English is the language of the Internet.  But the web is a dynamic and fast-changing environment, and this is not likely to stay the case forever, so watch this space!


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[1] Pimienta, Daniel, Prado, Daniel and Blanco, Álvaro (2009). “Twelve years of measuring linguistic diversity in the Internet: balance and perspectives”. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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