Michael's Happenings

Notes from Prof. Carol Saunders, "A Subtle War of Words on the Internet", Jul 18

The University of Canterbury, where I’m doing my PhD, has visiting professors frequently throughout the year. Today Professor Carol Saunders, a professor of MIS at the University of Central Florida, is our first visitor for this half of the year. Carol is currently the Editor-in-Chief for the MIS Quarterly, one of the top three academic IS journals. Carol has research interests in virtual teams and collaboration … so no surprise that I’m here listening today.

The paper that Carol is presenting today is coming out in the International Journal of Information Systems and Management (IJISAM), but it’s not released yet.

Carol is going to speak to the importance of language, and in particular on the Internet.

Eg, language didn’t work out too well in this video:

Language is a power tool, and the “language of the Internet” has many implications. We need to find a language to communicate, and increasingly, it is English. However, there are an increasingly number of conflicts and power struggles over common languages. Which language should be the global one?

1. Framework for understanding the power of language
2. Application to the Internet
3. Implications for Web design

English is used as a power language, eg, in maritime / shipping, English is it. Ditto with pilots and controllers. English is the international language of business, and is generally the expected language of Western tourists. Eg, when we visit other countries, we expect others to talk English. Does that mean … that English is also the language of the Internet? A high proportion of Web sites are in English … we can’t say that it’s the majority because of measurement issues, but some different studies put it between 45% and 70%. If this is the case, what are the implications of having English as the language of the Internet?

To understand this, we used a power framework, from Bradshaw-Camball and Murray. There are four different types of power:

  • Rational power … there’s an authority, and everyone is working towards the same goal.
  • Pluralist power … eg, political power, where we seek to impose our views on others.
  • Interpretative power … power is based on the ability to control access to and direct the construction of a social reality.
  • Radical power … power is an outgrowth of social structures, eg, classes, races, gender, institutions.

Now look at English as the language of the Internet through these four framework options.

As Rational Power
Arguments for … 80% of early Internet users were Americans, and it was funded by the US Department of Defense. First protocols were developed in English. Much early programming was done in English. Also, the US government paid for the work. Other arguments: the US is a leader in developing new technologies, there’s a large base of English speakers (1.1 billion speakers, official language in 60+ countries, there’s a growing number of people learning English as a second language, etc.). For some language information, see Internet World Stats.

Arguments against … more people in the world speak Chinese than any other language (eg, 1.3 billion vs. 1.1 billion English speakers), Chinese is increasingly popular as a second language, and the number of Internet users speaking Chinese is on the rise.

As Pluralist Power
The challenge here is to have “the language you speak to become the official language of the Internet”.

The Economist (v.341, n.7997, 1996) … “social power is linguistic power in virtual communities”. The “official language” is a political decision. A vying for language power, eg, Canada.

Another place where there’s a tussle is in the European Union, where they decided recently to go from 11 to 20 official languages. It will cost US$1.3 billion annually, require tens of thousands of tons of paper per year, and there is a need for additional translators (and they’re hard to find). English is spoken as the first (16%) or second (31%) language by 200/380 EU citizens. Unofficially, English is used for 60% of the paperwork.

As Interpretative Power
Can we see the Internet as a “virtual cultural region”? Eg, Johnson and Johan (1999) … norms and netiquette, low power distance, low uncertainty avoidance. However, these are Anglo-American cultural values, and these principles/ideas does not honor the more hierarchical power structures.

As Radical Power
Language can affect whole classes of people. As many as 90% of the world’s languages may disappear within the next century. Language frames and is framed by culture … therefore the elimination of these languages will effect social structures.

A couple of thoughts:
– dominance of one language may result in other languages being spoken less
– technology is not culturally neutral, eg, Google only supports 35 languages

A example of radical power: ICANN for domain names. The US government has veto power over decisions made the ICANN. Some results … ICANN is slow in forming domain names in languages such as Arabic and Chinese, and it hinders the development of Internet culture in countries not using Roman characters.

Another subtle example … ASCII can represent all English characters because ASCII is 128 bit, but characters in other languages require a 256 bit space. At this time, many critical Internet systems only support a subset of ASCII characters. However, this affects storage and retrieval times. There are some movements to UNICODE which supports 256-bits.

Which View Do We Apply?
– do we decide based on the sheer numbers of users?
– political and interpretative views may make it difficult to unseat English
– counterforces suggest the radical view … UNESCO, local web sites, political groups.

Implications of English as Language of the Internet: Web Designs
1. Left-to-right doesn’t work for all languages, eg, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese
2. Informality is not as well suited to more formal, hierarchical societies
3. Web translation tools, for automatically going back-and-forth between languages
4. Global English, eg, short sentences, limited vocab, simple sentence structure with subject appearing first, active voice, no idioms.

We rely heavily on the Internet … there is a lot of culture and history that privileges English over other languages. We need to be sensitive to others in designing Web sites.

The closing phrase … How well do you speak Chinese? … probably about the year 2050, it will be necessary for most people to speak Chinese.

Questions and Comments
1. In some US schools, young children are learning Chinese already as a second language. In other places, Spanish is the second language to learn.

2. There are other sorts of cultural prejudices that creep in … eg, when buying from a US site, we have to indicate a state. We don’t have that here in New Zealand. Also, credit cards enforce a certain view on the world.

3. Some cultures are more oriented to gaming and gambling, and we see less use of that in some parts of the world.

4. With respect to the proportions of the languages, have you considered polling spam for language? That would give a good indicator of what spammers would expect people to speak. Generally get most in English and German.

5. In the statistics, when we go down to countries that have very few speakers of certain languages, what do we do about them? Or what do they do? They have to learn a second language … but which one? Today they should learn English, but will that always be the case due to the rise power of China?

6. The reality is that dialects will disappear. We have to be kind to each other along the way.

7. As a European, there is nothing unusual about speaking 2, 3 or 4 languages.

8. What about the idea that we are evolving a language on the Internet? Most of what we use the Internet for is communication … and most of this is in local languages. So this actually encourages local language usage.

9. This is also very relevant to the academic world of publishing … many of the top academic articles are in English. Has there been any work in applying this framework to academic publishing. Some reasons: English is viewed as a power language, and publishing like this helps with indexing by things like Google. But … how do you keep things like academic abstracts up-to-date.

10. As our world shrinks, it would be good to have multiple languages, but it’s difficult.

11. Let’s look at the IT artifact more generally … it impacts things like keyboard designs. Eg, to use a Chinese keyboard, you have to use 3-5 keystrokes to get a single character. Much more energy is required.

12. Have a look at Bill Bryson’s book, The Mother Tongue … a history of the evolution of English over time. Perhaps English today is just going to continue to evolve rather than being replaced by Chinese.

13. There are power plays within languages, not just across languages. Eg, the definition of terms, etc. Those who speak English better, have a better possibility for publishing in academic journals. Encourages Carol to consider the subtlies of English and how people to play within a cultural subset.

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