Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Connectivity

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.

Just 10 languages account for 80 percent of the content of the Internet.

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today
More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.