THE Internet has long thought to be the great equaliser — where anyone could access a wealth of information at the click of a mouse.
And in many ways it is, for anyone who has access to it — except in terms of language.
In Malaysia, English has long been bandied about as the “language of information” by virtue of fact that most of the information we would find online is in English.
Not necessarily so.
While English might have reigned supreme in the early days of the Net, now English content makes up only about 30%.
Other languages, such as French, German, Chinese and even Malay (identified as Malaysian in Internet World Stats’ chart), are now among the top 10 languages used on the Internet.
The Guardian’s article titled The digital language divide talks about how someone’s experience of the Internet would vary according to the language ().
It gives the example of academics Mark Graham and Matthew Zook, who compared the Google searches made in the West Bank in Hebrew, Arabic and English and found a striking imbalance between linguistic groups.
Searches in Arabic in areas under Palestinian control usually result in only 5% to 15% of the number of results that the same search term brings in Hebrew; English searches yield between four and five times more results than in Arabic.
The article adds that there is little common content across language editions of Wikipedia — 74% of concepts have articles in only one language and 95% of concepts are in fewer than six languages on the site.
A recent Language Magazine article talks about what India is doing to bridge the digital divide.
In India, where only 10% of the population speaks English, Prime Minister Narendra Modi just announced the government’s Digital India Programme, which aims to promote digital literacy and safety in India.
Under the initiative, Google will increase the availability of information in Indic languages and help approximately 20 million small businesses establish a presence on the web.
Rajan Anandan, Google vice president and managing director for South East Asia and India was quoted in the article as saying that many of the 100 to 200 million Indians who come online don’t speak English.
The company is currently working with 30 partners on the Indian Language Internet Alliance to make the web more useful to Indic language speakers.
While Malay is one of the top 10 languages used online, there is much that Malaysia can do to beef up Malay content for the benefit of the non-English speakers in the country.
This is especially important if we are working towards becoming a high-income, developed nation.