A popular moniker for the Internet is the World Wide Web, but a report has surfaced that the Internet is only available in five percent of the world’s languages. This raises several questions: is the World Wide Web truly world wide, and how do we translate the World Wide Web for the four billion people who don’t have it yet?
English, French and Spanish dominate the Internet—which means that most of Europe, almost all of South America and North America have an advantage over those who speak other languages. One of those languages, Gaelic, came live in 2012, according to The Atlantic. Several national languages, such as Hindi (the national language of India) and Swahili (the national language of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania), only account for 0.01 percent of the world’s 10 million most popular websites.
While the Internet allows people to preserve their languages (primarily on social media, where content is user-generated), reports show that 1,519 of the 7,100 languages spoken in the world are on the verge of extinction. Kevin Scannell, a computational linguistics professor at St. Louis University, is seeking to give minority languages new life by developing the technical infrastructure via open-source software that can work for multiple languages. “The languages are not part of the world of the Internet or computing. We’re trying to change that mindset by providing the tools for people to use,” he said.
One of the languages Scannell is trying to preserve is Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken in Malawi. Edmond Kachale, who has been developing a Chichewa word processor since 2005 and translating Google searches into the language since 2010, said that there isn’t a lot of Chichewa language content online. “Unless a language improves its visibility in the digital world, it is heading for extinction,” Kachale said.
Around 60 percent of Malawi citizens lack Internet access. “Even if there would be free Internet nationwide, chances are that Chichewa speakers may not use it at all because of the language barrier,” Kachale said, stating that the problems of Internet access go beyond the financial means of the users. The 2015 Broadband Report, which used the benchmark of 100,000 Wikipedia pages in any language, found out that just over half of the world’s population (about 3.5 billion people) had access to content in their native language to make their Internet use relevant.
Africa is especially important because the continent is beginning to rely more and more on e-commerce to bring people out of poverty. Africa is also one of the most linguistically diverse continents, with around 1,500 to 2,000 languages split into four main language groups: Afro-Asiatic (Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Central Sahara and the upper Nile), Nilo-Saharian (Central and Eastern Africa), Niger-Saharian (which covers almost two-thirds of the continent),and Khoisan (Western Southern Africa). While English, French, Arabic and Portuguese serve as official or secondary languages in many African states, many prefer to use their local languages.
Facebook added 20 new languages in 2014 and several more in 2015, making the platform usable in 80 languages. In addition, several more languages are open for community-based translation, including Aymara, an indigenous South American language native to Bolivia, Peru and Chile. The language has about 2 million speakers, but UNESCO declared Aymara as a “vulnerable” language.
“We are sure when Aymara is available on Facebook as an official language, it will be a source of motivation for Aymara people,” said Elias Quisepe Chura, who manages the Facebook translation effort into Aymara. “Aymara is alive. It does not need to be revitalized. It needs to be strengthened and that is exactly what we are doing. If we do not work for our language and culture today, it will be too late tomorrow to remember who we are, and we will always feel insecure about our identity,” said Ruben Hilari, another member of the Aymara translation team.
Labeling the Internet the World Wide Web seems to be a misnomer at the moment—at least until many of the world’s popular websites can be accessed in all native languages. While the task seems like a difficult one, many speakers of minority languages are willing to make the effort.