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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MILENNIUM

Cyberspeak: the Death of Diversity
Will the English-dominated Internet spell the end of other tongues?

By Jim Erickson


NOT LONG AGO, THE eight-year-old son of the Kyrgyzstan president informed his father: "I have to learn English." In a central Asian country where Western tongues are rarely spoken, President Askar Akayev wanted to know why. The reply: "Because, father, the computer speaks English." That story was recounted by U.S. Vice President Al Gore as an example of the pervasiveness of the PC and the Internet. But it also illustrates what many consider to be an insidious side-effect of the information superhighway. While the Internet is often looked upon as a channel for international community building, it also has the potential to hasten an already rapid shift toward a dominant global language - English. It is the default language of choice.

There is no better analogy for this trend than the computer business itself. Because of the need for different kinds of hardware and software to work together, PC technologies gravitate toward standards: agreed-upon operating principles and codes that all platforms have in common. And as the planet is increasingly knitted together by data-communications cables, so the need for a language standard grows more compelling. This does not spring from any pull toward universal brotherhood. It is merely practical. If we are going to engage in digital discourse and commerce across the Internet, a common currency is required for easy exchange.

To the dismay of those who see cultural imperialism lurking in every hamburger, Akayev's son is right: the computer is English-speaking. The PC business was born in the U.S., as was the Internet. Some 80% of the online content today is Anglophonic. That means the Net is, at the moment, transmitting a mainly Western worldview. Wary of cultural encroachment, countries such as China and Singapore are doing their best to screen out material deemed hazardous to their way of life. French authorities sued a university for promoting its curriculum on an English-only website, alleging violation of a law requiring all advertising in France to be in their own language. The case was dismissed.

It is hard to see how such dike-building can hold back the tide of change. The Internet merely extends a trend well established by other technologies. The steamship, air travel, the electric guitar, radio, TV, satellites - all helped make English the language of international media and commerce. There will be a price to pay. Linguists predict that half of some 6,000 languages spoken today will fall into disuse by the end of the next century, possibly within the next 20 years. Many are already on the brink of extinction. About 100 languages are reduced to one native speaker.

Some experts compare the process to Darwinian biological models: Languages disappear because they no longer function as an adequate means of communication in a changed world. It's an inevitable, ongoing phenomenon. How many speak Latin or Gaelic these days? The rise of a global computer culture may pose challenges even for widely used languages, particularly those based on pictographs or that have non-English alphabets. The creation of software and Net content in Chinese and Japanese, for example, has been slowed because those languages are hard to adapt to the English-based computer keyboard.

As in nature, diversity in language is seen by some experts as an absolute good. Each language is a unique tool for analyzing and synthesizing the world; maintaining a wide base preserves different modes of thought as well as a healthy cultural ecology. "When you lose a language, it's like dropping a bomb on a museum," says Kenneth Hale, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A descent into mono-lingualism, on the other hand, is viewed as impoverishment because it limits ways of thinking - and therefore society's ability to adapt.

But will the Internet wreak as much linguistic devastation as a meteorite hit did to the dinosaurs? Unlikely - the technology is culturally neutral and can be adapted to create as well as destroy. Input devices such as the mouse, coupled with "graphical user interfaces" and web browsers, make it as easy to surf a Chinese language website as it is to visit an English one - no keyboard required. Rapid advances in computer processing power are making automated translation programs possible, a trend that will lessen pressure to adopt English in order to access cyberspace.

Internet devotees argue that the network will foster cultural diversity. Its ubiquity makes it possible for individuals to go wherever economic opportunity takes them, and remain in touch with their native community and language. Many predict that special-interest websites will eventually displace the prime movers of cultural imperialism, TV and movies, as entertainment choices.

Evolution continues regardless, notes Sherman Wilcox, linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico. "Language is always changing anyway. When the Normans invaded England, language changed, when the telephone came along, it changed; television surely changed language," he says. "Now technology has given us a whole new set of metaphors to use." Unfortunately, they may make sense only if you speak the language.


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