“IF YOU TALK TO A MAN IN A LANGUAGE HE UNDERSTANDS, THAT GOES TO HIS HEAD. IF YOU TALK TO HIM IN HIS LANGUAGE, THAT GOES TO HIS HEART.”
— NELSON MANDELA
The internet we have today is not multilingual enough to reflect the full depth and breadth of humanity. Language is a good proxy for, or way to understand, knowledge – different languages can represent different ways of knowing and learning about our worlds. Yet most online knowledge today is created and accessible only through colonial languages. Google has estimated that 130 million books have been published in about 480 languages. At best, then, 7% of the world’s 7000 languages are captured in published material, and an even smaller fraction of these languages are available online. At the same time, more languages become endangered and disappear every year; 230 languages have become extinct between 1950 and 2010.
This is a key challenge for digital rights, and a significant manifestation of knowledge injustice. When marginalized communities cannot add or access knowledge in their own languages on the internet, this reinforces and deepens inequalities and invisibilities that already exist offline, and denies all of us the richness of the multiple knowledges of the world. Most critically, those of us who are the primary consumers of digital content and infrastructure are still not the producers nor the decision-makers of its design, architecture, substance, and experience.
The effort to change this – to re-imagine the internet and re-design digital knowledges – needs a multitude of us working together. The internet we want to co-create should support, share, and amplify knowledges in all of the world’s languages. To address this issue, Whose Knowledge?’s Language Justice program is seeking to shift the status quo around languages online through research in action, advocacy, and in partnership with different communities and organisations around the world.
What we have done so far
The State of the Internet’s Languages Report
In February 2022, in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Society, and the Oxford Internet Institute, we launched the first-ever State of the Internet’s Languages report — a digital, community-sourced effort that brings together contributions in 10 languages, representing 22 language communities in 12 countries from every populated continent of the world.
The State of the Internet’s Languages report served as an awareness-raising tool, and helped to establish a baseline for assessing future actions. It demonstrated that the web is nowhere near as multilingual as we imagine or need it to be. Roughly 500 of over 7000 spoken and signed languages are represented online in any form of information or knowledge. Meanwhile, 75% of those who access the internet do so in only ten languages. These languages — such as English, Chinese Mandarin, Spanish, and French — often have a European colonial history, or are regionally dominant. Historical and ongoing structures of power and privilege are still intrinsic to the way in which languages are accessible (or not) online today.
Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages Convening
In October 2019, we hosted thirty participants from around the world to scheme about “Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages”. It was a diverse group of thoughtful, powerful folks who recognise that language is a proxy for knowledge, and who want to reclaim our many languages beyond English on the internet. Much of what we’ve learned from participants at this convening have been rolled into our State of the Internet’s Languages Report as well.
As this first baseline research is shared and amplified, we’ll be working with communities and partners from around the world, to prioritize and support actions that address these critical gaps in the internet’s languages. These include building awareness around critical language justice issues that deeply impact marginalized communities, learning more about what technical tools and resources (particularly free and open source) already exist for language preservation and amplification, and how are these responding to the specific needs, in terms of accessibility and security, of activists from marginalized communities who are often at risk when accessing the internet.
“IT’S NOT JUST THE WORDS THAT WILL BE LOST. THE LANGUAGE IS THE HEART OF OUR CULTURE; IT HOLDS OUR THOUGHTS, OUR WAY OF SEEING THE WORLD. IT’S TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR ENGLISH TO EXPLAIN.”
— POTAWATOMI ELDER, CITED IN ROBIN WALL KIMMERER’S “BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.”