Olu Online


I don't speak any languages but English. I'm neither particularly proud nor particularly happy about this fact. Even the Duolingo owl threatening my family has yet to fix this, but hopefully I'll have more than «un petit peu de Français1» at some point.

My lack of other languages has never been a barrier to me contributing to the internet or finding things on it, but for those who don't speak English it is often a huge one. Rest of the World did some great work on the statistics behind this, and by their estimation:

Our data shows that a little more than half the sites on the web use English as their primary language. That’s a lot more than one might expect, given that native English speakers only make up just under 5% of the global population. Meanwhile, Chinese and Hindi are the second and third most-spoken languages in the world, but the same scan found they account for just 1.4% and 0.07% of domains, respectively.—What languages dominate the internet? Rest of the World

Languages like Bengali and Urdu, each spoken by hundreds of millions of people, are nearly impossible to find online.—What languages dominate the internet? Rest of the World

The research has gaps that they acknowledge, like not being able to see inside "gated community" style apps, where you need to sign in, which is where much of the goings-on of the internet for non-technical users happen. Even so, corporate platforms often don't have options for many popular languages, never mind ones spoken by less people.

Most programming languages are in English, meaning that those who aren't proficient in English struggle to contribute to the web in its most technical terms, let alone in terms of academic papers, programming tutorials and coding communities. If we are to have a future where more people who want to be are technical, we need a world where people can understand and easily use their tools.

Attempts to redress this often speak of internationalisation (i8n, if you insist), a translation effort implemented on the individual site level, mediated by web tools. I want to believe that more people will implement internationalisation the cheaper and easier it becomes to do, but I am not holding my breath with no laws or social force to pressure companies into it.

I'd also love to think that AI translation could eventually tackle this problem, but the profit motive isn't there, and in any case there is very little data to scrape to train tools on these languages on the web already, further entrenching these biases.

If a multilingual internet relies on the (amazing!) efforts of small groups of determined, under-resourced people to bring their native languages to the web, we will be waiting a long time before even a fraction of the 7,000+ languages spoken around the world are online.

## Further reading:

This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6-month creative challenge. Other posts so far: abolition, bump, boost, culture and discussion.

  1. a little bit of French, in French!