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The Online Language Barrier

Efforts to bring Internet connectivity to developing countries don’t address the fact that little content is available in local languages.
March 6, 2015

No matter how many Facebook drones and Google balloons take to the skies in the next few years, they can’t change the fact that the vast majority of Internet content is available in only a few languages. The dominance of those tongues may limit the appeal of the Internet to newcomers—or accelerate their adoption of new languages.

The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of online content is available in only one of 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, German, French, Russian, and Korean.

Roughly three billion people around the world speak one of those as their first language. But over half of all online content is written in English, which is understood by just 21 percent of the world, according to estimates by Web browser maker Mozilla and the mobile industry trade group GSMA.

Mozilla and GSMA estimate that Hindi, the first language of roughly 260 million people, constitutes less than 0.1 percent of all Web content. According to a recent estimate by the U.N., only 3 percent of online content is in Arabic, which is the primary language of around 240 million people.

Part of the challenge is that there is almost twice the language diversity in the developing world, which accounts for 94 percent of the world’s offline population, as there is in the developed world. In India, for example, there are around 425 different languages.

Wikipedia highlights the English-centric nature of the Internet. There are more than four million Wikipedia articles in English, and no other language is represented by more than two million articles. Only 15 other languages are used in more than 500,000 articles, and 7,002 languages don’t appear at all.

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