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What are the true effects of English dominance online?

Written By: neilk on November 28, 2007 No Comment

When we look at websites from day to day, we find that often it is easier to find what we are looking for by simply defaulting to the English version of a website. Granted, most people who use the internet on a regular basis are educated enough to have something of a working understanding of English, however this is certainly not the case in areas of the world where the phenomenon of the internet is only beginning to become known. It is true that most internet content is in English and will probably continue to be in English for decades to come, but the question arises as to what this means for cultures that do not necessarily have an internet presence. Will cultures with non-electronic languages be destroyed over time as our society becomes increasingly dependent upon the internet for verification and gratification of a culture’s existence and issues?

The old European imperialism had an interesting effect upon the languages of many nations and cultural groups throughout Africa and Asia. While Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese have remained very much “pure” and intact despite foreign intervention, other nations such as India now use English as an integral part of modern cultural and practical communication. Still more drastic is the example of Vietnam, where the entire language is now written in Roman characters due to French colonial influences. Of course the oppressive nature of the European brand of imperialism has ended for the most part, but the question arises as to whether the subtle, though no less significant, cultural power of the United States has the effect of “anglicizing” cultures in a similar fashion to the previous imperialism. The internet is very much something that owes much of it’s power to the United States’ institutions and technological prowess, and while other countries have adopted the internet fully and have made it a vital part of the economy and well-being of society (i.e. Japan), one wonders whether the technologies of English speaking countries have an effect on the language of countries that wish to adopt those technologies. Obviously there is no simple answer to such questions, as different countries have found different ways of embracing or rebuffing foreign interventions (the example of Japan being very interesting in having a culturally native alphabet specifically reserved for the creation of foreign words). But it is at least an important factor in deciding whether linguistic dominance of one language or another on the internet can spell the end of other languages, at least in practical dialogue and purposes. After all, in the near future it may become extremely useful for all of us to learn at least some Mandarin with the rise of China as a world power an obvious reality.

Perhaps another issue that may help in understanding all this might relate to whether or not the internet is itself a giant interconnected community or an anarchic information free-for-all where people group together in camps of common-interest without much interaction with other communities of the internet. I think discussion of this facet of the nature of the internet will be very important in deciding the true power of the internet to affect cultures and their respective languages.

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