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Are Social Media and Online Culture Damaging Language Diversity?

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If you had to take a wild guess, how many languages would you say are currently in use across the world? The rather staggering answer is around 7,100. Even 3 years ago though that number would have been nearer 8,000, as a UN report has revealed that almost 900 languages have died out in that short space of time. Many have pointed to the internet as a significant factor in this dialectic extinction.

Historically, languages do gradually die out as society advances, and an increase in global communication, online or otherwise, means that it's far less likely that new ones will emerge. The fact of the matter though is that there's a striking imbalance between the number of existent languages and the ones which are actually supported online, and worryingly the further towards social media you steer, the more that number shrinks.

90% of all languages on Earth are spoken by less than 100,000 people, and many of those are only spoken by a handful, but that still leaves more than 700 that are far more widely spoken and Facebook, the most widely used site in the world, supports a paltry 80. Twitter meanwhile, only supports 28. The issue widens when you realise that the less widely used languages are often poorly supported, riddled with errors and oversights.

Google, of course, do offer a translate function which is applicable to select websites, but to say it's haphazard would be a glaring understatement. There is also a distinct and unsettling bias towards Western languages. Despite Facebook and other tech heavy hitters setting their sites on India, a woefully low number of widely visited websites support Hindi, which is also the fourth most widely spoken native language in the world. Meanwhile, Chinese languages appear on somewhere around 2.8% of all websites, despite the fact that there are 1.2 billion people speaking those languages natively, if not more.

China, of course, have their own thing going, rather than falling into line with Western social media platforms, they have developed their own, but much of the younger generation in the country (as well as in other areas of South East Asia) have been very vocal about their desire to gain open access to Western platforms. It's also a huge issue for Africa, which has a remarkably heavy mix of different spoken languages and a desperate need for wider internet access to help combat poverty and disease. Africa remains just about the most limited place in the world in online terms, unless we're counting the poles.

A big part of this problem is bringing in the personnel to actually introduce all these different languages to websites, the more rarely spoken a language is, the harder it will be to find a native speaker to do the job. You can't just use algorithms to translate a website, it needs a human touch. This is especially true where symbols are concerned, in English letters fit together in the same way regardless of order, but in other languages the symbols actually morph depending on what comes before and after. Apple learnt this lesson the hard way when a line of Arabic text started crashing iPhones because the processing software couldn't deal with it.

The other issue with symbols is that they render domain names utterly redundant. If you can't read Latin text, even the most rudimentary website is complete gibberish at the most fundamental level. In the English speaking world it can be easy to underestimate how vital a tool our first language really is. It's the same imbalance which has been plaguing the business world for well over a century. Chinese businesses still struggle to keep up with the unfair demand for their staff to learn and understand English at a far deeper level than the average student normally would.

A far more well recorded phenomenon is the way in which the internet, and social media in particular, has birthed a whole range of new acronyms and colloquialisms, with more bursting into existence every day. It's not enough to understand rudimentary English, you have to know what 'brb' means if you're going to have any kind of communication beyond just emailing people. Really, this is a smaller part of a far wider problem - internet exclusion outside of the West. It's an issue that Facebook, Google and others are keen to resolve, but their focus is almost entirely on the technology needed to increase global internet access, rather than making the internet a more friendly, welcome place for people all across the world. That's the real boundary that needs to be crossed.

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Are Social Media and Online Culture Damaging Language Diversity? Reviewed by Unknown on Friday, September 25, 2015 Rating: 5

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