Geopolitics and the global adoption of the internet are creating an East vs West language divide.
The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow. — Bill Gates.
The language of the internet has shifted from predominantly English to multilingual. But the internet seemingly reinforces a few main languages, putting the majority of others at risk of exclusion. Chinese Mandarin is quickly becoming one of the dominant languages of the internet at the expense of others.
If as Bill Gates says, the internet is a town square, then you need to learn Mandarin in order to have a voice in the digital village of the future.
There are 8 billion people, 195 countries, and over 6,500 languages spoken on the planet. Of the 8 billion, nearly half the people on the planet don’t have regular internet access. And a significant portion of these individuals without access reside in the least developed countries.
Given these stats, it’s fascinating to see the distribution of global languages on the internet.
There are 10 languages that represent 75% of all web traffic. English and Mandarin are neck and neck as the most common languages with the most web traffic. Nearly 50% of global traffic.
The primary English speaking nations (US and UK) have a combined population of about 400 million well below China’s 1.2 billion people. Of the Chinese population, 480 million are not online yet.
Put plainly, populations that represent 15% of the global population see their local languages dominate 50% of web traffic.
Based on these data points, it appears that the internet is leading to a contraction of the languages in use.
Why do English and Chinese dominate as the language of the internet when there are so many other languages?
Because in the 20-year span of 2000 to 2020, the US, China and other more developed nations have experienced significant internet user growth. Unlike less developed locations, these languages have experienced a first-mover and early adoption advantage allowing them to dominate 75% of global web traffic.
With this early advantage, a lot of useful content has been developed and added to the global network in these languages.
As new and often poorly developed nations gain access to the internet, they are forced to choose between building useful content from scratch or opting for a dominant language with well-established content and network effects.
Late adopters are left to adapt to pre-existing technology and their pre-established use cases.
“The famous engine [Google] that recognises 30 European languages recognises only one African language and no indigenous American or Pacific languages.” Daniel Prado
Wikipedia is just one site, but even this small pool suggests the universe of information on the internet looks very different from one language to the next.
Because language is often so intertwined with culture, the contracting of available languages online raises a question of equity on the internet. Ie: If languages are not represented equally on webpages does that mean that cultural representation on the web also contracts?
This may indicate that its likely new users coming online have to choose an alternative language to navigate the web and subsequently assimilate into that global culture.
China’s ongoing investments in Africa creates an interesting potential shift in the language makeup of the internet. Africa represents a significant number of the global populace without internet access. Nearly 70% of the Africans representing 800 million people don’t have access.
As initiatives like Starlink and other infrastructure investments unfold, Africa will increasingly join the global internet network in the next decade. Whether they join because of Chinese or US investment, these new users are likely to use one of the 2 dominant languages because of the pre-established network effects.
Research has suggested (pdf) that speakers of smaller languages online will often opt to use the internet in a larger language, even if they don’t speak it well.
But Starlink is an unproven technology and has a slow implementation process. The Chinese investment, on the other hand, is already underway on the African continent. And it also appears that as African’s join the internet their preference is for mobile access.
Mobile internet is an area Chinese companies like Huawei have shown an ability to implement infrastructure quickly. As a consequence, it may be that pre-existing infrastructure investments create a scenario where many of the 800 million African’s default to Chinese web content. This would shift Mandarin to the most dominant language on the web.
The Chinese style of the internet is different from the Western style of the internet. The Chinese standard is a notoriously state-controlled economy, with authoritarian controls on media and other types of content. It’s a communally oriented internet, ie: the good of the state comes before the good of the individual. This is often contrary to the western ideals of individual freedoms, privacy-oriented regulations, and freedoms of expression.
The divergent aspects of these respective networks have created different technologies and companies that support their respective network ideologies.
Examples of Divergence:
Like WeChat, an all in one P2P chat, social networking service, and payments platform. Many western individuals would balk at the privacy-related issues of having all their data wrapped into one app. In the west, there are privacy and security-oriented technologies like Bitcoin, Signal, and Facebook.
China and the Mandarin language are more likely than English speaking countries to become the dominant force in the entire Asia region (with the exception of India). This makes it likely that Mandarin could become the dominant language of the web.
Regardless of whether or not the language balance tips one way or the other, Mandarin oriented web content will still make up significant portions of the internet. The diverging policies and subsequent technologies that form from them will be interesting to follow. They represent an opportunity for aspiring digital workers to bridge the gap in diverging tech.
Capital, like energy, is a dormant value. Bringing it to life requires us to go beyond looking at our assets as they are to actively thinking about them as they could be.
It requires a process for fixing an asset’s economic potential into a form that can be used to initiate additional production.
In the digital age, information is capital and influence is power.
The ability to create and curate unique digital information assets is like creating and accumulating potential power. As the languages of the internet contract to be dominated by a few, the cultural ideas reinforced by these dominant languages will be evangelized in developing communities.
Influence is gained by leveraging the network effects of the internet to connect large groups of people. As more people join the network, it’s value grows and the internet converges on a few languages and the east/west divide.
Moving forward, being a monolinguist will prove to be a significant opportunity cost as it represents a disadvantage in controlling the global ideological narrative.
As China’s geopolitical strategy plays out over the coming decades the adoption of Mandarin can be expected to continuously grow in Africa and the developing world. Therefore, it makes sense for individuals that want to be relevant in an increasingly connected world to speak the 2 most dominant languages.
Learning Mandarin will empower internet users to tap into a large and growing body of unique internet content. An amalgamation of divergent processes, unique thoughts, and ideologies.
The future of the internet will be characteristic of a multilingual global society where the utility of polyglots becomes significant. By learning Mandarin, you open yourself up to a wider world of opportunities, positioning yourself to maximize the value of the internet’s network effects.
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