Multilingualism and the End of the Global Internet? Thumbnail
Growing the Internet 3 December 2014

Multilingualism and the End of the Global Internet?

In the Internet world, all links are created equal.

For most of us, or at least one third of the world’s population who can read and speak the English language (or one of the ten mainstream languages online), this holds true.

But for others, this link is not as equal, as they face language barriers to the Internet. Unbeknownst to many, the Internet we love and know today was by design built as a global network but not a multilingual network.[i]

According to Ethnologue, out of the 7,106 recorded living languages, only 394 or 6% of living languages are used by 94% of the world’s population while the remaining 94% of languages are used only by an average of 1 million people or less. In terms of language footprint by content, World Wide Web estimates that there are approximately 165 languages with web presence today and only 36 of them are actively used. Wikipedia currently hosts 280 languages and Google Translate handles around 80 languages. Today, 56% of web content is in English, and together with the other top 10 mainstream languages on the Internet, account for 80% of online content.

More information travels through the Internet today than before. And studies by the University of California, Berkeley found that almost 95% of all information today is stored digitally and less than 5% remain in analogue format[ii].

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) projected that at least half of today’s living languages[iii] will cease to exist by the end of this century if nothing is done to save them. Linguistic experts revealed that every two weeks, one living language is lost forever due to factors like lack of users, globalization, rapid urbanization, lack of integration with digital technology and, the ubiquitous Internet and social media platforms themselves. Regions with the highest number of endangered languages are led by Asia, followed by the Pacific, the Americas, Africa and lastly, Europe.

Multilingualism and cultural diversity discussions have been gaining ground across a wide spectrum of audiences in the wake of growing concerns on the effects of globalization on cultural diversity, and the omnipresence of the Internet and ICT applications, now a life staple for many. To address this concern, the member states that form UNESCO unanimously endorsed the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressions, effectively pushing cultural and language diversity as a global development agenda and raising the profile of the multilingual Internet in the same strata. UNESCO is currently negotiating for the text to be included in the 2015 United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. In addition, the recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report on “The Promotion and Creative Economy 2013 Special Edition,” highlighted culture and language as public good and returns to the notion of commonwealth growth, rather than solely an economic development agenda.

How important is local content to socio-economic development? The Internet Society’s own study revealed that local content is the common denominator for Internet development and promoting digital inclusion. In a broad-based approach, local content promotes the development of a more efficient, competitive market, more affordable access prices and improved quality of experience for the user, in addition to promoting local talent and entrepreneurs.

Tim Tan Wee, an Internet Society Hall of Fame inductee, stated in an interview that multilingual Internet is already emerging. Today, there are relatively more standards to support this, including enabling multilingual email applications released last year and ICANN[iv]’s international domain name (IDN) scheme launched in 2010. According to ICANN’s 2013 IDN adoption study, reported an encouraging rise in IDN adoption and the growing number of local content variety especially from developing countries. More significantly, the report singled out IDN as near perfect predictors of future local content. This means in the intermediate term, IDNs can become a kind of proxy for predicting the growth of local content on the Internet.

The Internet Society’s 2014 Global Internet Report shed light on why even the availability of content – whether licensed or not – does not always translate into usage. The assessment revealed that firstly, content must be locally relevant, based on language and context. Secondly, the location where the content is stored can have a significant impact on the cost and latency of access, which in turn affects content usage. The report recommends two area of focus, the hosting and distribution of local content[v] as strategies for addressing the content divide.

I would like to add that there is another important but missing link to a sustainable solution: the lack of future proofing[vi] of knowledge, culture and language whether as a community, society or culture. In essence, we must ask the question: how do we maintain technological relevance in the midst of constant and rapid technology advancement while preserving our uniqueness (language and cultural diversity) in a meaningful manner for everyone? Future proofing requires a vision, a set of goals and strategies to work towards. We need to ask why multilingualism and the multilingual Internet are important for us in this context. Is it to boost national productivity? A way to preserve cultural heritage and intellectual wisdom? A way to exert national solidarity and promote national identity? To foster a copy-and-paste society of passive consumers or alternatively, to foster an innovative society with creators and entrepreneurs? Promoting multilingualism needs a compelling vision, well thought out strategies and some degree of forward-looking imagination. Because the Internet is still a young technology and has yet reached its full potential, it is highly recommended that policy makers consciously ensure that their development policies are anchored in the values of inclusiveness, equity, openness, diversity and technology-neutral innovation[vii].

Isaac Asimov, in his 1964 predictions for 2014, informed us of the state of technology adoption that would come to bear. “Although technology will still keep up with the population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgetry world of the future to the full.”

He further explained that, “a larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.” Asimov’s famous work also predicted among other things, the coming of Internet of Things, mini-robotics, smart phones and video streaming, and the Internet.

At the heart of the matter, we are a product of our technology, as much as technology is a product of man. Technology shapes how we think, learn, live and play. Therefore, the Internet must serve a higher purpose (peaceful, non-violent, positive and plural) if it is to continue to be relevant for humanity.

Informed policy response are needed, with emphasis on cutting-edge multidisciplinary and creative policy making which takes into account the far reaching cultural norms, economy and technological shifts that is reshaping society. Failing to do so may put the Internet itself at risk. Upon further reflection, perhaps the global Internet cannot address all of the social challenges of the 21st century society, but a global multilingual Internet is more likely to succeed at some level. Lest we are accused of creating a divided world, one resembling a technology or knowledge apartheid!

In conclusion, a multilingual Internet would not spell the end of the global Internet in any sense of the word. It is instead the next evolution of the Internet in the 21st century where no divide exists.

[i] A Global Internet with single language, common standard that facilitate connectivity in a seamless manner. The Internet is based on Latin characters using the English Language as proxy which has 26 letters, 10 numerals and hyphens which translates to 37 ASCII code (machine readable). To add Chinese characters (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) would need to extend an additional 40,000 or more new characters to be developed.

[ii]In 2013, humanity generated 1,300 Exabyte of information compared to 487 Megabyte of information in 1999. Over 40000% growth!

[iii]Living Language is defined as a language that has at least one speaker from whom it is their first language; extinct languages and languages that are used as secondary languages are excluded from this count.


  • Support and fund digital literacy education to all citizens including the disabled and the marginalized groups.
  • Support and promote the establishment of local content industry (non-commercial and commercial) including social and business entrepreneurs as part of growing a healthy Internet ecosystem.
  • Support and promote wide use of Creative Commons as a tool to promote affordable and freely available content for sharing or for content creation. Information creates value only when they can be exchanges, reuse, repurpose (i.e. procreate with other information) to create new knowledge. CC enables this without infringing on Intellectual Property Rights.


  • Invest in critical Internet infrastructure which supports network scalability for future growth such as the establishment of a neutral Internet exchange point (IXP), establish cache server, content distribution network (CDN) or data centres within close proximity of users and the universal deployment of IPv6 addresses
  • Promote open peering practices among operators to minimize cost. It is critical to note for IXPs assist in keeping local traffic within the country, saving cost as well as lowering local access cost in the future which improves users quality experiences and consequently attracts greater usages and new adopters
  • Promote the hosting of quality local content with major local ISPs and webmasters
  • Build local hosting and content creation platforms specific to various groups needs such as content for children, women, etc.

[vi]Some ideas for future-proofing

  • Develop a National Cultural and Language Diversity Strategy and Policy to address current and future content needs (e.g. social, economic, political, legal, education, science and technology, convergence), and boost capacity-building for digital literacy for every citizen.
  • Create a public database on cultural history and language (written, vernacular)
  • Support the creation of quality content in local languages as well as promote the digitization of cultural and historical artifacts using digital media technology
  • Promote open standard and open source tools as a solution as much as possible

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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