While webmasters in English speaking countries go out of their way to come up with an efficient and creative course of actions aimed at reaching out to an increasing number of people all over the world, the daily to-do list of professionals in some other countries has a completely different agenda on it. Their job description would only mention one task – but not a doable one, many would argue. The task is to prevent their native languages from digital extinction.
A lot of languages that end up on the digital “red list” are those spoken by minority nations in Europe, including Icelandic, Maltese and some Eastern European languages such as Latvian or Lithuanian. And it is not just that there are not enough speakers of these languages communicating online. A lot of advanced linguistic software available nowadays for more common Internet languages – online translators, grammar and spelling checkers, personal assistants – is based on the statistical principle and enhanced by linguistic databases created in the process of language use online. But the luxury (or shall we say the necessity?) of creating such software for rarer languages seems to be an unreachable goal if not enough words have been spelled and not enough phrases translated on the web. Moreover, when it comes to more sophisticated technology such as voice-controlled devices, even languages with a strong digital presence cannot boast of sufficient support and resources.
So, will the Internet’s and mobile devices’ linguistic skills be soon limited to English? Is it only English that websites and mobile apps should be developed in going forwards? While some studies do indeed consider English to be the only language completely out of the danger of extinction, recent statistics suggest that a number of other languages are not at all ready to give up so easily. Thus, the 26.8% of the total number of Internet users that English claimed in 2011 was very closely followed by Chinese with just under a quarter of total usage. It is also worth noting that while the number of English speakers online has only increased by about 300% over the past decade, the number of Chinese speakers has grown by an impressive 1,479% during the same period of time. Besides, the amount of Arabic and Spanish speakers has gone up respectively by 2,500% and 807%, with both languages listed among the top 10 languages used on the Internet in 2011.
Another angle of looking at the issue of languages online was provided by a recent study that analyses digital linguistic resources from the point of view of access to the “world online wallet”. The findings reveal that websites available in 13 confirmed languages – unsurprisingly including English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese mentioned above – have the potential of reaching out to 90% of the online population. It is obviously not just the number of speakers of a certain language that determines digital economic opportunities, but also such factors as users’ online and offline spending behaviour. However, the stats for the past two years prove that the learnings about website translations that may be necessary to help a business prosper financially are very much in line with the list of languages most commonly used on the Internet.
International markets have also contributed to mobile being defined as one of the most important trends for 2013 and the years to come. In fact, localization and consideration of local languages may be even more crucial for mobile than desktop searches. In emerging economies of Asia and South America cheap costs of mobile phones and tariffs together with the lack of effective broadband connections and infrastructure in numerous areas result in those countries having some of the largest mobile web communities in the world. In China, for example, almost half of the users regularly search on their mobile devices, while in the US it’s only one in five users.
All these stats and trends suggest that English will not after all end up being the one and only language used online. This is of course of no consolation to hundreds of minority languages that are struggling to survive on the web or do not have any digital presence at all. It will be interesting to see with time if digital linguistic history will mirror or maybe even influence the fate of languages offline.