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Language preference or language dependence?Article: Volapük or English?


The internet boom could be argued to be still booming, but the use of English as the main internet language to communicate is definitely on the slow down.

There is indeed a language change taking place in the internet. With the enlargement of the EU and the new Chinese market linguistic and cultural needs are becoming more increasingly sensitive to internet users. Using Everture's expertise in international research, we support businesses with multinational markets to tune-in their internet presence according to local needs and increase local market share. In this article, we share with you the the challenges we experience in our clients' markets from London to Hong Kong to Sydney, to achieve that.

From the Tower of Babel to Willy Brandt

The debate of a single language in Europe such as Esperanto or a world language such as Volapük, has probably been a contentious issue since the biblical story of The Tower of Babel. But in the internet society, English has steam rollered its way to being the main language for communication. There has been over 60% influx of non-English speaking internet users in the last three years compared to a 26% rise of English speakers [www.glreach.com]. This has brought the debate of language preference back into life especially as global businesses scramble to 'localise' their sites to meet local language needs. But is it really necessary?

On the European continent you could fly for two hours in any direction and you'll be confronted with a different language, different tastes and different traditions and you may even notice that people here have a different body language. If you really want to be successful at integrating and being accepted into one of these other cultures, you will need to learn from it and adapt accordingly. This could never be more true if you wish to conduct business there…

French - 'Espangnol sil vous plait'

"If I'm selling to you, I speak your language.
If I'm buying, dann mussen Sie de sprechen"
[Former German Chancellor, Willy Brandt]


One nation, many voices

China is the classic example of language dependence. According to the most recent study conducted by CNNIC, the number of Chinese accessing the internet has risen from 2 million in 1998 to nearly 56 million today. Over the next five years growth is expected to increase exponentially. This is all happening despite the fact that vast numbers of Chinese do not understand each others spoken language. The majority of China's 1.3 billion population, however, do read and write a common language. This huge population is dependant on a written language that cannot easily be input into a web browser. In order to enter Chinese into a PC using a Western keyboard, Chinese speakers use a number of different Chinese input programmes that allocate a number of characters to individual roman letters and enable Chinese users to laboriously enter characters using a series of key strokes. A small minority of westernised Chinese use Pinyin, a system of language that was refined by the Chinese communist party from an earlier western method that allocates a phonetic definition of each character. The characters are then spelled out in western letters as they sound.

New technology has been developed to accept Chinese characters written on a keypad of a PDA for example and on mobile phones. A few strokes and the program recognises the character and completes it. While developed mainly for the Chinese market, it is being adapted for other languages, as well. Like another Chinese invention, the type set printing press, new technologies like this hold the promise to strengthen and unify the Chinese peoples.

The issue of National Identity

German - 'Französich, bitte' While entering characters is not a problem for the French speaking countries, the notion of language preference permeates French and some other European cultures. There are over 11 million users online in France and 22 million native French speaking users online in total. These figures are expected to rise significantly by 2005 according to Mintel, the French state run system providing infrastructure for the past decade. The French consciously study and preserve their language as a central part of their culture. For most cultures, language preference is connected to national identity and traditions. On one hand, cultural preservation must be respected and preserved, on the other hand, the influence of instantaneous global trade will have a significant impact on the way internet users think about language and choose to communicate with their far flung counterparts.

One Nation, Many cultures

The cultural heritage of some countries, most notably the United States and Canada, is one of a melting pot of cultures and languages. According to a recently published survey by Espanol.com, an online retailer for Spanish speakers, most US Hispanics are bilingual and express language indifference. In fact only 8% would prefer a Spanish site, 41% said they would prefer an English site and 51% indicated that they have no preference when it comes to site language. This may be a result of acculturation and assimilation of Hispanic population in North America. Most likely this indifference may be a reaction to the lack of good quality Spanish language content. This is rapidly changing however, as more Spanish speakers come online. Visit the stylish portal terra.com for a look at the future of Latin culture on the web. As sites like terra.com sweep the globe in search of the next surge of online consumers, language fluidity may develop in their wake.

Online culture, online language

The influx of non-English speaking internet users, brings with it new marketing opportunities. As global businesses take advantage of these 'emerging' markets, a fourth condition may emerge: E-lingua. E-lingua is a state of language fluidity that moves between language preference and indifference. As web populations become more familiar with multinational sites two possibilities may occur to accommodate trade: a) instantaneous translation to the language of preference will occur, or b) the use of a hybrid language, not unlike lingua franca, the mixture of Italian, Spanish, French, Greek and Arabic used to conduct business on Mediterranean shores for centuries. While this hybrid may not take into account the cultural nuances that language preference affords, it begins to define the cultural subtleties of another culture - that of the global citizen trying to integrate the offline corner store and the online hyper-market.

There is no doubt that the buyer will continue to dictate the language of trade, and that multi-lingual software and language specific communications will be a part of the online experience in the years to come. As this progresses at light speed, look for the E-lingua effect at the next site you visit.

Stewart Fitchew
Research Consultant
Berlin, Germany


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