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Multilingualism

Updates

23 Feb 2017

Most social media networks are multilingual, but this varies from network to network and country to country. Hindi May Soon Beat English On Social Media, All Thanks To Internet Nationalism explains the emergence of high numbers of posts on nationalist topics in Hindi, a driver of engagement in India. According to Ajay Sharma,  'A study of the growing popularity of news stories in Hindi and other Indian languages is an important barometer to gauge the changing complexion of the Internet user.' On a global level, English is still the top language, followed by Chinese, but social media languages do not always follow the same trends.

13 Feb 2017

UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, said he is 'particularly concerned at the tightening of the space for free speech at a time where its promotion and protection should be of the utmost importance', referring the ongoing cut in Internet services to English-speaking sections of Cameroon. While he continues to monitor the situation, he has urged the government of Cameroon to restore Internet services immediately, to comply with international law and human rights.

4 Feb 2017

Latin used to be the language of scholars, allowing them to share and discuss their discoveries. Other languages (such as German, for the sciences) are sometimes identified with a particular subject area. English as a lingua franca for scholars has definite advantages, but the need for language diversity is discussed in The giant shoulders of English: The advantages of having a scholarly lingua franca should not obscure the disadvantages, which points out that 'Monolingual ghettos are bad for science' as important work may be overlooked because it is not published in English. While the article does not address Internet multilingualism, the implications are obvious.

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Multilingualism is an important aspect of the promotion and development of cultural diversity on the Internet. If the Internet is to be used by all within society, content needs to be accessible in more languages. A report released by the UN Broadband Commission in 2015 reveals that only about 5% of the world's estimated 7100 languages are currently represented on the internet. It also notes that the use of the Latin script remains a challenge for many Internet users, in particular for reading domain names.

Multilingualism is strongly related to local content. Having more languages on the internet means that more locally relevant content is being made available. If online content is provided in local languages (by governments, companies, etc.), this gives people incentives to get online, as ‘users’ of content. At the same time, allowing people to express themselves online in their own languages encourages them to become generators of content. As such, the availability of local content can contribute to making the internet more inclusive and to bridge the digital divide, through its potential to attract more people online, both as users and generators of content.

Updates in multilingual content on the Internet may now come from multilingual content marketing as business moves to incorporate new audiences. In addition, e-commerce and other applications are moving to multilingual interfaces to reach users in multicultural and multilingual populations like India. The problem with English points out that ‘Foreign countries are opaque to mostly monolingual Britons and Americans. Foreigners know us much better than we know them’, and suggests that this language asymmetry probably hurts English speaking countries in many ways, including communications; lost access to information in other languages; and even difficulty in fighting cybercrime and hacking. 

The promotion of multilingualism requires technical standards that facilitate the use of non-Latin alphabets. One of the early initiatives related to the multilingual use of computers was undertaken by the Unicode Consortium – a non-profit institution that develops standards to facilitate the use of character sets for different languages.

In their turn, ICANN and the IETF took an important step in promoting Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs). IDNs facilitate the use of domain names written in non-Latin alphabets such as Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic and others. As of January 2015, IDNs have been introduced in several countries and territories as equivalent to their Latin country code top level domains (ccTLDs). For example, in China, 中国 has been introduced in addition to .cn, while in Russia, рф has been introduced in addition to .ru. IDN are also part of ICANN’s New gTLD Programme, allowing for the registration of new top level domains (gTLDs) in scripts other than the Latin one; for example, .сайт (website) and .онлайн (online) are among the new top level domains available to the public.

IDNs thus contribute to making the Internet more inclusive, as the possibility of accessing and registering domain names in more languages and scripts empower more people to use the Internet. It has been said numerous times that domain names are not only about addressing and naming, but also about content; they are therefore relevant for local communities, and they have the potential of encouraging both the use and the development of local content, in local languages and scripts.

Many efforts have been also made to improve machine translation. Given its policy of translating all official activities into the languages of all member states, the EU has supported various development activities in the field of machine translation. Although major breakthroughs have been made, limitations remain. In the case of IDNs, for example, universal acceptance is still a challenge when it comes to issues such as functional IDN e-mails and recognition of IDN by search engines.

The promotion of multilingualism requires appropriate governance frameworks. The first element of governance regimes has been provided by organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which has instigated many initiatives focusing on multilingualism, including the adoption of important documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity.

Another key promoter of multilingualism is the EU, since it embodies multilingualism as one of its basic political and working principles. The evolution and wide usage of Web 2.0 tools, allowing ordinary users to become contributors and content developers, offers an opportunity for greater availability of local content in a wide variety of languages. Nevertheless, without a wider framework for the promotion of multilingualism, the opportunity might end up creating an even wider gap, since users feel the pressure of using the common language in order to reach a broader audience.

Events

Instruments

Resolutions & Declarations

Wuzhen World Internet Conference Declaration (2015)
ITU Resolution 133: Role of Administrations of Member States in the Management of Internationalized (Multilingual) Domain Names (2014)
IPU Resolution on the Contribution of new information and communication technologies to good governance, the improvement of parliamentary democracy and the management of globalization (2003)

Standards

Recommendations

Other Instruments

Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS) (2005)

Resources

Articles

Reimagining the Internet as a Mosaic of Regional Cultures (2016)
Multilingualism and the Internet - Briefing Paper (2009)

Publications

Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)

Reports

Internet for All: A Framework for Accelerating Internet Access and Adoption (2016)
State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access (2016)
Proliferation of Indian Languages on Internet (2016)
World Report on Internationalised Domain Names (2015)
Multilingualism in Cyberspace: Indigenous Languages for Empowerment (2015)
Mobile for Development Impact (2015)
The State of Broadband 2015 (2015)
Strategic Agenda for the Multilingual Digital Single Market (2015)
Best Practice Forum on Creating an Enabling Environment for the Development of Local Content (2014)
Local World - Content for the Next Wave of Growth (2014)
EURid-UNESCO World report on Internationalised Domain Names Deployment 2012 (2012)
Smart Policies to Close the Digital Divide: Best Practices from Around the World (2012)

Processes

IGF 2016 Report

 

The need to foster cultural diversity and multilingualism on the Internet emerged in many sessions at IGF 2016. For the Internet to enable inclusive and sustainable growth, it is essen- tial that Internet users be able to create and access content, and have software tools in their own languages and scripts (Enhancing Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in Cyberspace - WS19). Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) can contribute to a more diverse cyberspace, but problems related to universal acceptance (e-mail addresses in non-Latin scripts, recognition of IDNs by search engines) still need to be addressed (Enabling Every User with a Unique Internet Culture ID - WS144).

Moreover, countries need to develop favourable and dynamic policies to encourage and protect local content. Infrastructure and access to digital tools are also necessary to support both the devel- opment of and access to local content (Local content and sustainable growth - WS22). 

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