The most spoken languages on the web match the most spoken ones in the offline world, at least the ones in the top positions. English, Chinese and Spanish are top 3 of both lists, but not in the same order. Everything seems to show that following the direction our world is taking, the most spoken languages will become indispensable, while the rest will tend to become smaller and smaller until they disappear. But to what extent will this scenario become real? In this post, we will analyse the data regarding the most spoken languages on the web, how the Internet affects languages and we will try to anticipate the future to find out what will happen to the other languages.
The superiority of English even among the most widely spoken languages on the Internet is indisputable. Taking the three most spoken languages in the world into account, this language has much higher numbers than its direct competitors, Chinese and Spanish. More than half the online content (around 52 %) is in English. The percentage of the other two most widely spoken languages in the world is greatly reduced when it is transferred to the Internet: 5% of the Internet is in Spanish, making it the fifth language in content, while only one 2% is in Chinese, a language that occupies the eighth position. English also dominates in terms of number of users (35%), followed this time by Chinese (13%) and Spanish (7.7%).
Based on this data, we can say that many native speakers of other languages read and publish content in English, since native speakers of this language alone could not generate or cover so much information. In fact, many of us do it: we share articles in English on our Facebook page or on Twitter (a lot of the time to seem more interesting, you can’t fool us!). Or we look for relevant information on pages in this language because we can’t find it in another of the most spoken languages, like in the case of Spanish. This, in the end, has a clear and strong influence on our lives: anyone who doesn’t speak English doesn’t have access to certain information, so we all try to learn it.
There are those who, based on this data, predict we will all gradually be English speakers and only the other most spoken languages today will survive (and only just.) This may seem to be beneficial to everyone, as all communication barriers would be broken down, but in reality, the consequences would be catastrophic. Speakers of minority languages would stop speaking them and with the death of each of these languages a culture would die. However, there are tools to combat this tendency: minority languages are often the result of lack of people to speak to, or, in other words, the excess of speakers in the majority language (the famous diglossia of bilingual societies.) This reality according to a recent study by the University of Santiago, is inverted on social media, where each person expresses themselves in the language in which they are most comfortable. Thanks to the fact that social media overcome geographical barriers since it is much easier to select with whom you want to speak to, the flame of hope could still be alive: minority languages would become strong in the digital medium when it comes to one on one communication.
From what we can see, although English is the dominant language on the Internet and is one of the most spoken languages in the offline world (see?), minority languages still have a space on the Internet in which to thrive. If we are optimistic (and at Ontranslation we prefer to be so, because, after all, languages are our thing) we can expect the Internet to become a space where multilingualism is common practice and in which, despite the dominance of a language for global information, the other languages have their own space.