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Business - Written by on Thursday, November 15, 2007 14:39 - 9 Comments

Paul Artiuch
The long tail of languages

It can be argued that the internet is a force driving the world’s population towards several common languages. As it becomes increasingly important to be online, smaller languages may fall by the wayside. The computing industry itself is not very language friendly, especially for those languages that don’t use a major alphabet like Latin. Most keyboards use one of a handful of alphabets and the majority of software and information online is in English and Chinese.


Does this spell doom for the other 7000 or so languages that are in use today? As I have written before, machine translation is one solution. However, this is imperfect even between similar languages such as English and German. Accurate translation between the different language families is still a distant dream. Another way of survival for less used languages would be for more people learn them. Here the internet can help by connecting students with native speakers and language teachers around the world. While it is known that human interaction is the best way to learn a language, getting a good Hausa teacher in your city might be a challenge. Virtual worlds and large online multiplayer games already facilitate spoken communication using VoIP in an interactive setting. A more formal teaching tool is being developed by a startup called Myngle. The company is developing a platform that will use a combination of VoIP, collaborations spaces and podcasts to allow students and teachers to self organize around learning different languages. The goal is to allow anyone to learn any language. While the unifying forces will likely continue to consolidate the languages used to communicate online, the long tail of language learning will at least give the others an opportunity to be exposed to the world.


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La langue d’internet | Michel Leblanc, M.Sc. commerce électronique. Marketing Internet, consultant, conférencier et auteur
Nov 20, 2007 8:47

[...] statistiques vues sur Wikinomics à propos de la langue des utilisateurs d’internet. On y apprend qu’il y a 59 [...]

Don Osborn
Nov 28, 2007 14:21

The quality of machine translation may improve more quickly than you suggest, but in any event that and the very interesting phenomenon of how the internet can link speakers (and learners) of less widely spoken languages are but pare of the “long tail” effect for languages.

Another aspect is simply “lowering the bar” for use of diverse languages a range of ICTs, in various software (from wordprocessors to speech-to-text), and even in “traditional” media such as books. On the latter, the potential to produce digital content in any language that can be printed on-demand is a classic long-tail effect – the economic hurdles to production and distribution of books for minority languages are eliminated.

Chris Anderson’s point about the importance of the head of the distribution (English, Chinese, etc.) to accessing the tail is apropos here. Not just for learners. Native speakers of minority languages (for whom mantras of “you won’t get a job speaking that” and even linguistic prejudice weigh heavily) have, in theory, a possibility of having the best of both worlds.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Bots that talk
Dec 20, 2007 11:41

[...] the need for people to understand each other in order to travel, do business and learn. However, as I have written before, the internet is not yet particularly friendly to speakers of languages outside of English, Chinese [...]

Economics of language & the “long tail” effect | Multidisciplinary perspectives
Apr 10, 2008 22:44

[...] and future of world languages. When I did a little research on this last fall, I came across an article on the Wikinomics blog that looked at the distribution of languages on the internet and posed questions re language [...]

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » The long tail of language - Part II
Apr 11, 2008 14:01

[...] long tail of language – Part II Back in November my New Paradigm colleague Paul blogged about the impact of the Net on language, in particular noting the massive dominance of information [...]

Jun 17, 2008 19:09

I predict that Engrish will become the world language in less than 100 years.

Feb 5, 2009 7:52

There is an even bigger issue here.

Multlingual websites face the dilemna of offering their language options using either ISO codes for languages ie


OR using national flags.

The latter is incorrect since flags denote countries not languages BUT CAN YOU BLAME any websdesigner for choosing to use a graphical symbol which is clearly noticeable rather than two letter codes which do not catch the eye.

The WWW is global, this implies different countries and different languages.

The WWW is also about business and commerce – businesses do not like risking losing customers with five second attention spans who will not search for language letter codes.

Its about time the WWW standards commities stopped ignoring this major issue and put forward a globally recognised eyecatching symbol to indicate the presence of a language selection mechanism.

Please note I did not say that the symbol should be part of the selection procedure, leave that to the webdesigner. What I say is that the symbol should indicate the presence of a selection mechanism in a clear and eyecatching fashion.

The image should also be supported by an HTML tag for blind users.

Browsers could react to the tag as well as display the graphical image.

Call it the World Wide Web?

Tackle this issue before we claim this – right now its a mess.

Just take a look at the feeble attempt to denote the English language by a diagonally split USA and UK flag? What socio political message does this send out to Australians, New Zealanders and any of the other millions of English speakers who are neither American or British.

Seperate out nationality and politics from language selection!


Not English, but a multilingual social web is the key for collaboration : crisscrossed blog
Mar 5, 2009 19:32

[...] this multilingual web? It needs a high language skill to collaborate effectively and creatively. A long tail of language has emerged. The future focus should be on networks with cross language interaction. Each language [...]

Os idiomas mais usados na Internet « bloco de notas
Jun 12, 2009 1:49

[...] em PT-br para ver que este posto se deve a esta comunidade. Obrigado. Fonte: articulo completo, aqui.   Comentários [...]

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Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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