Posted by Jeff Kelly on January 5, 2008
International travel is always exciting and wonderfully educational. Last November I did a long bit of globetrotting to deliver Web 2.0 training events in Switzerland, Italy, Singapore, England, and France. Given the challenge of discussing Web 2.0 with colleagues who speak a wide variety of languages, the topic of the language of the Web often pops up. Usually at dinner (especially after the second bottle of Chianti), passionate predictions of Web 3.0, 4.0 and beyond are debated. As the predictions turn to the issue of language, some espouse that English will prevail given its current dominance and foothold in markup and programming languages. Others suggest that China’s size and economic growth will overwhelm all other languages and dominant the Web. And then there was one person predicting that Latin would be resurrected as the language of the Web – but he was also the person who drank the majority of the Chianti.
Now, my crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else’s. But since the past and the present often give insight into the future, I decided to learn a few things from the Web:
The first thing I found was this reference from World Internet Stats (I have no idea on how accurate their data is) that shows the “Top Internet Languages” as of November 2007:
While interesting (and perhaps relevant in a roundabout way) this speaks to the digital divide more than the language of the Web. This is the (primary) languages of the people using the Web, not the language of the Web pages themselves. And as we see, currently 30% of the Web’s users speak English according to World Internet Stats. What is interesting further down the page is the table that shows the growth rate of languages on the Web. From 2000 to 2007, the number of English Web users grew 167%. Chinese speaking users grew at 472% (and Arabic speaking users grew at an amazing 1,575% – unfortunately, no statistics were provided for Latin speakers ;o). If we see the same growth over the next seven years, by 2015 the number of English speaking and Chinese speaking Web users will be roughly equal at about 1 billion. But that still tells us only what language the speak – not what language they are reading on the Web. So, on we go…
Next I found the Future of the Internet II report from the always interesting Pew Internet & American Life Project. In the survey for the report, they asked 742 Internet leaders, activists, builders and commentators about the effect of the Internet on social, political and economic life in the year 2020. With regard to language of the Internet in 2020, the report summarizes the results this way:
“Many respondents said they accept the idea that English will be the world’s lingua franca for cross-cultural communications in the next few decades. But notable numbers maintained English will not overwhelm other languages and, indeed, Mandarin and other languages will expand their influence online. Most respondents stressed that linguistic diversity is good and that the internet will allow the preservation of languages and associated cultures. Others noted that all languages evolve over time and argued that the internet will abet that evolution.”
And there is much more valuable and interesting info in that report. I highly recommend it. But I’m a numbers guy. I want to find more stats on than actual language of the pages being posted on the Web. So – on we go…
So, I searched on and on (I gave up after an hour) and could not find any statistics of what percentage of the billions ow Web pages out there were in which language. It was frustrating to say the least. So, in the spirit of Web 2.0, I fell finally upon David Sifry’s report on the growth of RSS to try to guesstimate the language of publication on the Web. From his April 2007 State of the Live Web post, I pulled this:
So, based on RSS feeds (which is interpreted as blogs) and you can see that there are more RSS items in Japanese than in English. If you visit the page you will see that he also has statistics on new RSS items per hour by language. From this, he observes, “Again it would appear that both English and Spanish are more global languages based on consistency of posting through a 24 hour period, whereas other top languages, specifically Japanese, Chinese, and Italian, are more geographically correlated.” But again, this reflects only blogs (RSS feeds) and not the much larger Web as a whole.
So, I was not able to find any data from which I could fashion a crystal ball to predict the language of the Internet. If any of you have any stats that would be helpful, I would love to hear about them. But we do not have to predict what the future language of the Internet will be to move on to the point of this post. (Are you, like me, beginning to wonder if there is a point to this post?)
One last thought before I finally get to the point (Ha! – sorry, but it helps set the satge for the point). We should first pause to reflect on the great wisdom that has been already been imparted to humankind. I speak, of course of the great book chastises the great folly of man and provides keys to the future and how we must adapt to thrive. That book of wise parables and foresight, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In that tome, the prophet Adams first introduced us to the Babelfish. The power of virtual Babelfish continues to grow and, one day, it may be the case that all languages are fully interchangeable. Until then, ideas will be more valuable in their native language – and more useful to native speakers.
So finally to my point. The Web has transformed the way we learn. To continually adapt to our dynamic environment, we must harvest ideas from the Web and assimilate them into the way we think and work. Assuming that no language lends an inherent advantage to idea generation – all ideas are created equal – the dominant language on the Web will deliver the majority of new, innovative ideas. The language of the Web is the language of learning. To gain competitive advantage in this flattening world, you must learn from the Web. Speaking the dominant language of the Web affords you advantage. So, for now, English speakers hold court. In the future, it might be Chinese, it might be Latin, who can say? But until we perfect the Babelfish, parents, educators, and businesses will be wise to have their children, students, and employees master the language of the Web.