Imagine opening a web browser and surfing the Internet, but all of the content is in a language you don’t understand. Imagine hitting the “translate this page” button, only to find awkward syntax and idioms that make no sense to you. This is, for the most part, the case for Internet users who don’t speak English. As of January 2015, 55.5% of all websites are written in English. The next highest ranked language is a tie between Russian and German at a measly 5.9% each. But will this always be the case? Almost all the world’s languages are centuries old, but the digital realm is only a few decades old. This relatively short time span is one reason among many that it may be reductive to pigeonhole technology into one specific language.
There are many reasons why English has come to dominate technology, but one of the simplest explanations is that many technological advances are developed with the English-speaking market in mind. Even technology developed in other countries, like the programming language Python, often used English in order to attract a larger audience. Japanese gaming systems (when Japan was the leader in game development) were quickly redeveloped and translated for English speakers before Western developers starting producing better technology. For the foreseeable future, it’d be wise to bet that all major technologies will be released in English as soon as possible, if not first. But could anything change this?
A Connected World
A more diverse linguistic representation in the digital realm won’t happen without more people gaining access to Internet first. According to the ITU, Internet access in developed countries is nearing saturation levels, while only 31% of households in developing countries are connected. Over the next twenty years, the most growth will be in those countries that today have a low percentage of users. ITU’s study also found that Internet access in Africa is growing “at double digit rates.” Based on these numbers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see millions of new Internet users in the coming years, especially since access to Internet is considered by many to be a human right. And with new methods being developed to expand the range of Wi-Fi, there could be a completely connected world someday.
Technology will also need to be available to more people before other languages are more equally represented. Once the technology of the last fifteen years—the stuff that’s Wi-Fi-capable—becomes obsolete, more people in the world will be able to afford it. TVs were once a luxury that very few could afford, and now you’d be hard pressed to find a home that doesn’t have one. This depreciation in cost happens with the release of every new tablet, smartphone, and laptop, but these gadgets become really affordable when a new platform is introduced to the market. As prices drop on these technologies, many are handed down or sold. This is also when knock-off brands and smaller developers begin to sell their more-affordable products. Today in India smartphones can be bought for as little as $70. In fifteen more years, having an iPhone might be like having a TV.
For all the new Internet users in non-English-speaking places, there’s going to be a demand for content they can understand. Again, imagine trudging through some article in broken English just to find out about opening day at the Olympics. It wouldn’t be enjoyable. Also, people are attracted to news and entertainment that comes from their home and in their language. They want stories from people who grew up like they did. According to an article in Quartz, “a survey by the Indian market research company JuxtConsult revealed that almost three-quarters prefer and seek out content in their first languages” even when they’re fluent in English. Because of this trend, there should be a massive incentive to make content in different languages. The producers of web content benefit by having an eager audience of consumers, and the consumers benefit by having enjoyable and interesting content that they can connect with. And, in fact, we’re already in the middle of a huge growth in non-English content thanks to the user-created content on social media. It’s even helping to save endangered languages. If you were starting a blog in Cambodia about local music, chances are you’d be writing in Khmer rather than English. And it’s exactly this localization of audience that might one day even the playing field for other languages.
In the meantime, translation services are better than ever, and companies can choose to produce content in multiple languages with an easy service like the one Unbabel provides. Crowd-sourced translation corrects the errors that translator applications produce so that the translation sounds natural and, in fact, not even translated. This method could begin to be used more for global news and entertainment so all content written in English is put on the web in many languages. With more languages being represented, hopefully the Internet will no longer be the realm of the English speaker, but instead a place where anyone in the world feels like they can communicate.
The Future Will Tell
As access to Internet increases and technology like smartphones, laptops, and tablets becomes more affordable, there will be more users in non-English-speaking countries. While it’s difficult to imagine English getting knocked off its throne as the language of the digital world, it’s also difficult to imagine what the digital world will look like in 100 years. Translation technology may be so advanced that instant translators come as a free app on every phone, so that there is no need for English to be used as the language for a wider audience. New programming languages might dominate, and they might not be in English. In fact, there’s already a growing list of non-English ones being used. Based on the growth of technology in the last 100 years, there will likely be new, cutting-edge technology platforms. Maybe English isn’t the optimal language for the technologies of the future. We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but in our dynamic world it’s difficult to say anything will stay the same.