Language Is a Barrier to Digital Equality

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

What language do you “speak” when you use the Internet? Why does it matter? In her article in The Guardian (online, of course), Holly Young explores “The Digital Language Divide: How Does the Language You Speak Shape Your Experience?1

Young points out that when the Internet first began, 80% of the content was in English. That figure has now dropped to 30%, and out of the 6,000 or so languages in existence, 10 of them make up 82% of all Internet content. These figures prompted her to ask some questions: Does the language you speak online matter? How is your Internet experience different if your first language is not one of those 10? How does language shape your access to information and your ability to communicate globally?

Young asserts that it definitely does make a difference. Just as language in day-to-day life can shape your connections with others and your common interests, the Internet does the same. People often communicate with those who speak the same language, sharing ideas and information that is common for their language group. Research has even shown that bilingual users behave differently on different platforms in their two different languages.

The author makes many other points about the inequality of information, who is represented, and how some groups are represented by others. She also looks at ways to bridge the divide and explores which languages will survive online.

Why should this issue be of interest to us as educators? Young tells us that “[i]n 2011 the UN declared access to the internet as a basic human right.” However, not everyone has equal access, whether due to inadequate infrastructure or the lack of linguistic diversity on the web. We should think about what we and our students are missing if our access is limited by language.

1 N.d. WebCite alternative.

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