What do you see when you think about the internet? Like The Guardian‘s Holly Young, many of us will visualise ‘something hazy, suspended somewhere above our heads […] composed of tiny, moving fragments of information and simultaneous conversations […], limitless’.

In a highly stimulating article sponsored by the British Academy, Holly Young challenges many of our pre-conceived, idealistic concepts on languages and the internet. Once predominantly in English (80% of cyberspace in the mid-1990s), online content is now dominated by 10 languages, namely English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, German, French and Malaysian, which represent 82% of the total cyberspace. (Approximately 6,000 languages are spoken worldwide, many of which are not represented online.)

Graph showing the number of users per languages

Far from being ‘limitless’, the internet is in fact limited by the language you speak online. Not only does it affect the content you have access to, it also determines who you interact with online, how you use Facebook, Twitter and other social media, what results you get through your search engines, and what you care about. As our lives get increasingly intertwined with the internet – via our smartphones, tablets etc. – the web and its language landscape shape how we interact with our non-virtual environment in ways that we aren’t necessarily aware of.

The dominance of the top 10 languages is bound to be challenged as more and more people get access to the internet, just like English dominance was challenged by Chinese content, which grew at a rate of 1277.4% from 2000 to 2010. The web also represents an opportunity for linguistic empowerment through initiatives like the Endangered Languages project which uses the web to document and preserve endangered languages. Research suggests however that speakers of smaller online languages will in fact abandon their mother tongues given the volume of content already available in dominant languages. Another obstacle is that indigenous languages often only exist in oral form which means that ‘the digital world is not friendly for indigenous language users’. Linguistic researcher András Kornai believes that 95% of all languages in use today will never gain traction online.

From a New Zealand perspective, the relationship between languages and the internet is of particular interest. Are the current efforts for the preservation and development of Māori sufficient? New Zealand content is very rarely available in both English and Māori, let alone in Māori only. And what about community languages, such as Niuean and Tuvaluan, most speakers of which live in New Zealand? What are our responsibilties, if any, in sustaining those languages and making sure they survive the digital age?