Internet language statistics pie chart

Languages Across the Internet

The world is a very different place from when the World Wide Web was created 30 years ago. It’s not an exaggeration to say that technology has exploded in that time. No one could have seriously predicted that we could use an app to help brush our teeth, yet the smart toothbrush is currently on sale.

The internet has become an inescapable force in most of our lives, but what does this mean for language? If billions of people can all access the internet, but there are still barriers to communicating, can it truly achieve its full potential?

Taking a look at some stats may be a good place to start. Perhaps unsurprisingly, English is by far the most commonly used language across the internet for websites. The figure is often debated, but well over half of all websites have content in English. The next most common language (as of September 2019) is Russian, with only around 7% of all websites containing content in the language.

This is particularly surprising when you look at the languages spoken by internet users. English is the most common, it is spoken by only a quarter of internet users (as of March 2019). Mandarin is the second most common, by nearly 20% of internet users, but less than 2% of websites are in Mandarin. Spanish is spoken by 8% of all internet users, but less than 5% of total website content is in Spanish. You can start to see the pattern here.

The dominance of English on the internet can be pretty easily explained. The inventor of the World Wide Web was an Englishman, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Moreover, there was prominent development of the internet and other computer technologies in both the UK and the United States.

As is always the case, statistics do not tell the whole story. It’s also important to point out that a lot of people who use the internet in English may not speak it as their first language. This fits the historical tendency of publishing documents in English to guarantee the biggest exposure. It also helps that English has a large pool of technical vocabulary to draw from. This has also meant that various other languages have borrowed words from English to describe computing terms. Bulgarian has borrowed words ‘kompiutar’ (computer) and ‘tvard disk’ (hard disk), and there are the German words ‘downloaden’, ‘booten’ and ‘crashen’.

English is also the dominant language amongst coding languages. These are the ‘instructional’ languages used to build and design websites, animations and video games etc. There are also now coding languages in Arabic, Bengali, Hebrew and even Icelandic (amongst others). This may represent a shift away from the reliance on English in creating online content.

A lot of people use English as their choice of language across the internet for searches regardless of their location. If your website has pages translated, this would mean it appears in searches in those languages too. It’s not a guarantee of more website traffic, but it definitely helps, and shows an appreciation for the markets you want to work in.

Whilst the English language has influenced the internet, the internet has also had a significant impact on the English language. The general attitude you encounter when you discuss this, is that the internet is ruining language standards, usually something to do with ‘text-speak’ (lol). Language has always evolved, and most likely always will, especially when it comes into contact with new technology.

We know how exhausting the race to keep up with technology can be. We originally set up our telephone interpreting service in 2002, 5 years before the first iPhone was released. Since then, we have worked with our IT team to set up bespoke software for processing our services, as technology has developed.

One of the more recent innovations was the integration of Google Maps into the face to face program. This allows us to plan the most efficient route for an interpreter to take when travelling to a face to face assignment. This helps ensure that our linguists get between multiple assignments a day as efficiently as possible.

The effects of globalisation on the way we use the internet seem to still be working themselves out. There is however a clear demand for website content to be available in multiple languages. Whether you’re trying to sell car parts in Brazil or get your band big in Japan, having a translated website could be key in helping achieve this.

The internet has been an important part of the history of the last 30 years, but it is still very young in historical terms. Therefore, it is far too early to tell what the full impact on language the internet may have.

Maybe English (or a version of it) will be catapulted to a universal super-language. Maybe Mandarin, or another language will take that place. Maybe there will be a brand new computer generated artificial language which can break down all language barriers. Whatever the future of language holds, you can be sure that we will be waiting to assist in breaking down any remaining barriers to communication.

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