The Severe Lack of Indicators for Measuring Linguistic Diversity in Cyberspace The reservations regarding statistics expressed in the preceding section brings us back to the debate surrounding the lack of indicators for measuring linguistic diversity online, particularly the lack of detail provided about these speakers. While many users resort to a dominant language because their language is not sufficiently equipped for online representation or simply because it has little “value” to them, the number of users of other languages is far from negligible, even if it is as yet difficult to quantify.
Languages Maladapted to the Web, or a Web Maladapted to Languages In terms of tools, we know that a language’s online representation is not simply cultural or quantitative. It is most crucially a question of 7 The explanations provided by the site do not explain the method for deducing what language is used by a given internet user, and the number of potential users of a number of languages (English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese, etc.) seems wrong.
Daniel Prado technology. The internet, recalls Paolillo [PAOLILLO 2005], is an instrument originally conceived primarily for the English language. By extension, languages sharing the Latin alphabet and Western cultures were able to find a comfortable place for expression more quickly than others, although let’s not forget that European-specific diacritics still don’t have a place everywhere online, despite advances are that sometimes given an excessively high profile, as with actions advocating the acceptance of domain names in different alphabets and diacritics. English remains the language of programming, markup, coding, communication between servers and most importantly, the bases of computer languages. Computer languages are based on English, and computer scientists are professionally required to know it.
But how many languages encounter more significant constraints related both to the technical problems of representation and to cyberspacespecific cultural media use [DIKI-KIDIRI 2007] Crossover between the Internet and Traditional Publishing The publishing world and the world of the web display a certain degree of statistical similarity. Numbers show that only thirty languages publish more than a thousand volumes per year ; six of these produce two thirds of world’s literature, and English alone predominates considerably with 28 % of all volumes [LECLERC 2011].
That these dominant thirty correspond by and large with those receiving Google recognition seems to indicate a parallel between the world of the web and that of paper publishing.
Should we therefore conclude that online production must be preceded by paper Google Books, the most publicized online library initiative, and similar efforts by public and private operators to digitize library collections 8, may at first sight seem only to reproduce the status quo of linguistic diversity, in the online context 9. Yet we know that the internet has opened the door to forms of expression outside the interests of traditional publishers. For 8 See in this book : Herv Le Crosnier, Digital Libraries.
9 See the portal on the challenges of digitizing works (H)ex-Libris http://www.hex-libris.info Daniel Prado example, scientific publishing in languages other than English has seen a revival thanks to the ease and low cost of online publishing, in contrast to traditional publishers who prefer to avoid the financial risk of editing articles with low reader appeal 10.
However, this specific case is not reflected in international indexes indicating precisely the opposite – a steady increase in English. Thus the web, while providing a voice for minority languages traditionally absent from paper publishing, still does not adequately reflect the prism of cultural-linguistic diversity, even according to the most basic indicator of speaker numbers. There is no indication that the situation will change in coming years.
But it’s not Just the Web As of yet, no study has provided much insight into the role of linguistic diversity in “informal” media such as e-mail, instant messaging, chat forums, mailing lists, blogs and social networks. Surveys, statistics and analysis remain quite limited. However, a cross analysis of such texts permits us to assess general trends, finding that production via such informal channels is much higher than the production of web pages, even if it is often fleeting, and that in these contexts the place of lesser-used languages has increased significance.
Blogs Even though Web 2.0 is still new, by the end of 2010 there already existed 152 million blogs and 600 million Facebook pages, compared to 255 million traditional websites [PINGDOM 2011]. These interactive spaces behave very differently from traditional web pages.
In 2006, Funredes experimentally applied its method of analysis to blogs, finding that :
… [T]he blog has a different logic of productivity compared to traditional websites according to various populations. Indeed, Hispanics, for example, produce proportionately as many blogs web pages as 10 But this is another debate that is more concerned with the commercial interests at play in scientific publishing.
Daniel Prado Anglophones 11, while this proportion diminishes by a third for Francophones and Lusophones and by a tenth for Germanophones.
Can we conclude that there exists a cultural reticence on the part of Germanophones, Francophones and Lusophones regarding blog use, since it is difficult to imagine that such reticence could be due to technical or economic constraints, given that the socio-economic development of these three groups is inversely proportional to their comparative presence In fact, the exponential growth of the blogosphere (for which statistics are as ephemeral as they are contradictory) suggests that there is still some time left before its numbers stabilize. Some languages will probably catch up as they did with the web (for example, France’s Minitel, which blocked the emergence of a French internet until 2000), at which point we will see these statistics evolve.
However, one can also see the blog as a cultural phenomenon (as well as a political phenomenon for certain countries) that certain cultures will resist adopting, as has been the case for chats and forums. Others on the other hand will find in these formats a more flexible and open means of expression.
The Web, by nature more institutional than blogs, chat rooms or social networks, serves to convey messages to large communities. Messages are therefore most often circulated in a language that will be best understood by the highest number of people 12.
However, the blog is usually the result of individual and local initiatives to enable one or more persons to express ideas, feelings, points of view, or, simply, to be known. In general, the creators of blogs are more interested in free expression than in the extent to which they use their own language as a means of expression.
11 The same proportion of blogs and websites in Spanish compared to English, that is, pages in Spanish for 100 in English, for both blogs and web pages.
12 Unless it comes from the decisions of leaders who, belonging to professional categories that allow them to control the major languages of communication, are often tempted to use them to the detriment of others. It is common to find that international agencies and multinational corporations use only one or two major languages to communicate while their public mainly uses other languages.
Daniel Prado How many blogs are written in marginal languages While we can’t say for certain, a simple web search 13 reveals the blog as an emerging medium for these languages.
Interactive Cyberspace E-mail, chat rooms, forums, and discussion boards represent a refuge for minority languages, as users sharing a virtual community also share a common language of proficiency, provided no speaker of another language intrudes [PRADO 2005]. Indeed, as soon as one of the interlocutors doesn’t understand the local language spoken within a community, the more “prestigious” languages are imposed. This reality, common in scientific discussion forums where English enjoys primacy 14, is also present in less formal discussion forums in diglot or polyglot areas where a “prestigious” language is either the official language or the lingua franca.
But attitudes seem to differ from medium to medium. For Paolillo [PAOLILLO 2005], some people (speakers of Punjabi or the Arabic Gulf, for example) are more likely to use their mother tongue for chat sessions than for writing emails, including bilingual individuals who speak both their native language and their country’s official language.
Various international forums and studies have highlighted the role of informal media against brain drain, a phenomenon that has been decried by emerging countries. Today, diaspora inhabitants maintain contact with the homeland and contribute to its development online and in their own language.
Many regional, national, ethnic and linguistic forums and discussion groups unite specialists living in their country with expatriates who want to stay connected. Assuming participants belong to the same linguistic community, these conversations do not take place in English, French or Spanish, (or any other official language or lingua franca of their country), but in Punjabi, Creole and Guarani.
13 For example : http://blogsearch.google.fr/ 14 English often ends up imposing itself in a forum as soon as allophone enters, even if the majority of speakers use another language. This phenomenon also occurs with other major languages of communication dominating linguistic areas (for example in Francophone, Lusophone, Russian-speaking, and Arabic-speaking regions).
Daniel Prado It’s Not Just the Content, It’s the Container The internet is not culturally neutral. Its size, its way of representing reality, its topography, its governance, its protocols and norms, remain tied to the English milieu of its birth. The internet thus remains a place where Anglo-Saxon culture reigns over familiar territory, but not only because of linguistic dominance. The formats used, the flow of messages, methods of text combining, image and sound, screen size, the use of keyboards, the predominance of written over oral communication, and so on, are all factors that may not always correspond to cultures wishing to appropriate it.
Paolillo (ibid.) reminds us that the Maori cited solely cultural issues in their refusal to accept digital libraries. Specifically, “[T]he availability of information [is] protected in Maori culture”. This begs the question of whether the web, forums, blogs, and mailing lists do not at times go against the principles or cultural values of a people, leading to less or no use in a given culture.
Internet-specific formats are far from suitable for unwritten languages.
Are these languages absent from cyberspace In the booklet How Does One Ensure the Presence of Language in Cyberspace (Comment assurer la prsence d’une langue dans le cyberespace ), Marcel Diki-Kidiri shows how a language without a writing system may enter cyberspace [DIKI-KIDIRI 2007]. But what of languages whose speakers cannot or will not access the web through these channels Beyond Writing Today, all forms of information or communication can employ electronic channels previously reserved for writing. IP telephony, digital radio and television, audio and video downloads, video hosting sites such as YouTube, streaming and others, are now a part of everyday life, at least in countries and regions with an ict park and with easy, inexpensive and high-speed internet access. Many possibilities have open for the representation of languages – including the unwritten ones – in cyberspace.
Keep in mind that the mobile phone is enjoying great success in Africa and that the radio is the communication tool of choice in a continent where the Press (especially sub-Saharan Africa) has a weak presence.
Daniel Prado Non-text-based internet can offer an alternative to people with no written language 15 or for languages with little or poor computer system recognition (i.e. encoding problems, fonts, keyboards, and software).
The Digital Divide It is also necessary that populations have the access and capacity to produce audiovisual material and especially to be able to find this information. However, a global mapping of access to cyberspace illustrates a link between the digital divide and the socioeconomic divide. The internet has certainly become a tool of daily life for urban populations in industrialized countries, but it remains internationally inaccessible for five out of seven individuals. More than five billion people lacked internet access at the end of 2010 [PINGDOM 2011] ; distribution itself is uneven : at most 10 % of Africans are connected (and the vast majority of African users are concentrated in South Africa and on the Mediterranean) ; 25 % of Asians are connected, while 80 % of North Americans (excluding Mexico) and 65 % of Europeans are online.
Audio and Video Possible solutions that could reduce unequal access are financial, political and educational, rather than technical. ip telephony services like Skype and Messenger 17 (which accept both voice and video) are currently within the technical reach of most users, because the linguistic constraints are minor. Similarly, the webcast – digital radio and television, podcasting, etc. – has become more user-friendly and less bandwidth-intensive.
Wishes The barrier that prevents 95 % of the world’s languages from being present in cyberspace, namely the absence of writing or maladaptedness of a language for icts, could potentially disappear. For this to happen, of course, we must first have adapted computers and a high-speed connection. But 15 See in this book : Tunde Adegbola, Multimedia and Signed, Written and Oral Languages.
16 http://www.skype.com 17 http://messenger.msn.fr/ Daniel Prado above all, target populations must appropriate the technology to develop tools for themselves.
There is no doubt that if the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society [SMSI 2005] were followed 18, the danger of languages disappearing would fade away. By becoming instruments of communication, they would regain their value. However, ict access isn’t everything. Technology must be appropriated ; technical, cultural and financial hurdles confronted [PIMIENTA, BLANCO 2005].
The planet’s fabulous linguistic diversity is mostly absent from cyberspace.
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