There are 7,874 different languages recognized in the world according to the ISO 639-3 code. The Ethnologue lowers the figure to 6,912. Of all this cultural wealth, only 0.2% of the total, just over a hundred, are spoken by more than half of the world’s population.
This enormous diversity of languages implies many things. In particular, it means that half the world’s population is excluded from access to information when it is only available in one of the so-called majority languages.
This situation creates inequalities in access to information for those who do not speak the most widely spoken languages in the world, most of them of European origin.
Languages in the digital world are not represented equally, similar to as in the physical world. While some languages have many resources, tools and platforms supporting them, some are barely present online. Not all underrepresented languages are neglected because they are endangered. In fact, in many contexts the decision to choose some languages over others is purely economic, especially when companies target specific “lucrative” markets. For example, Swedish, spoken by 10 million people, is available across all major platforms (Facebook, Google, Spotify, etc.), while Berber (spoken by at least 20 millions) is barely present on the same sites.
But there are alternatives. An example of good practice can be found on Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia has 321 different editions with content, and does not place barriers of any kind for each community to develop a project in their own language. In fact, The only prerequisites to have a local edition Wikipedia are to have an active community and an iso code for the language. As a result, Wikimedia projects have helped more languages to be represented online, and nowadays Wikipedia is considered to be the largest written work in almost every language available, including many endangered or minority languages.
If Wikipedia was able to position itself in the list of the most seen websites in the world, it is because of its openness, allowing millions of people around the world to be part of the platforms regardless of their language, and the Wikimedia communities work everyday identifying and addressing their access barriers. In other words, multilingualism allows to “Open the knowledge” to everybody in the world.
This success of what the people can do in the free ecosystem that the internet is contrasts with that closed platforms have to offer. According to 2019 data, Facebook had 2.3 billion accounts, but only offered its interface in 111 languages (0,2% of the world languages). Of these, only speakers of 41 languages had translated access to the section on anti-harassment measures. This leaves out 652 million speakers, while there are speakers of 230 other languages widely used everywhere but lacking a Facebook translation.
As for Instagram, the interface is only available in 36 languages. Among the lacking languages there are European languages with an active base of users, such as Catalan.
The good practices mentioned above show how a pluricentric view of the world allows for greater participation of people in digital platforms. This greater participation means that digital platforms have more content for their users. Moreover, having an interface and a space where the use of their own language is allowed means that more people can participate and feel comfortable on those platforms.
Having access to information in your mother tongue is a basic human right. Wikimedia may be doing well compared to other platforms, but how can others be improved as well?
It would be as easy as allowing their users to be able to translate their interfaces into their prefered languages. With such a simple change, the communities would allow thousands of people who aren’t fluent with the major languages to access their platform with the same rights other people have.
To address this issue, and to have languages better represented on different online platforms we call on the big Internet corporations to truly embrace a multilingual world, by: