The WGIG should embrace English

The WGIG should embrace English

Summary: I printed last week the Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance, and finally got around to reading it. The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was set up pursuant to goals set out at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which I attended in December of 2003 while working at the World Health Organization (WHO).

TOPICS: Collaboration

I printed last week the Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance, and finally got around to reading it. The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was set up pursuant to goals set out at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which I attended in December of 2003 while working at the World Health Organization (WHO). The WSIS is the reason my email address is now the target of Piles of SPAM (POS), because the People In Charge (PIC) at the WSIS thought it a Good Idea (GI) to Publish My Email Address (PMEA) on the WSIS Web Site (WSISWS), thus resulting in an Endless Stream Of Nigerian Scam Letters (ESONSL).

The report lays out a set of proposals for a more inclusive approach to internet governance. It's a very odd document, and I'll have more comments on it tomorrow, but what seemed particularly strange was their insistence on the importance of multilingualism in order to improve inclusiveness.

To be frank, I can't think of a way to make the internet LESS inclusive than to emphasize multilingualism, thus recreating in digital form our language-balkanized physical world.

I have a unique perspective on this. I'm a programmer. I've worked on a regular basis with people from India, Pakistan, China, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, Italy, and valleys in Switzerland where the Schweize Deutsche is so odd that even Swiss Germans in other valleys don't understand it. We could work together because we all spoke, and read, English.

English pervasiveness in Information Technology runs deeper than just human interactions. Programming languages are all based on English. Most documentation is released in English first, and other languages second (and on that note, most of my French-speaking Swiss colleagues favored the English version, because the French version made mistakes or used words that seemed odd to them). This greatly streamlines the development process, and I would consider it of equal importance to the spread of global telecommunications networks as a driver of a global marketplace for computer technology skills.

Now, apply that lesson to internet governance. The WGIG recommends the creation of a new space for dialogue for all stakeholders on an equal footing on all Internet governance-related issues. It goes on to note that existing mechanisms do not sufficiently take into account geographic balance and linguistic diversity. In other words, they want a) a lot more people talking in a big room about internet related issues who are b) all speaking in their own language. The San Diego Zoo would be less cacophonous.

I also wonder if non-Latin character set domains (and by implication, email addresses) are such a great idea, though that cat's already out of the bag (and if its anything like my former cat, she's already a couple blocks away getting in a fight with a cat far bigger than she). It's possible to register Chinese domains in Chinese characters. Most of the non-Chinese world, however, won't be able to visit these locations without a plugin, which means they won't visit them at all. Granted, those sites are probably IN chinese, which means they weren't targeted at a global audience, anyway.

I'd be more concerned with a Chinese email address. I could easily see someone sending me an email, and then having no way to put it in my smartphone.

Of course, standardizing on English is very easy for me, as I'm an English speaker. I'm not the one forced to use a language that isn't my mother tongue. On the other hand, the benefits of standardization on ONE language are obvious in the computer industry. Why not use a language that a large percentage of the world already understands, even if it's as a second language?

If inclusiveness is truly the goal of the WGIG, I think extending the lessons of the computer industry into internet governance is an obvious first step.

Topic: Collaboration

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • Which English are you referring to?

    "I rented the flat for a fortnight". Anyone in North America have a clue what I am talking about?

    Hadaway, gan on. As they say where I come from.
    • Yes..

      You rented an apartment for 2 weeks.
      Patrick Jones
      • So we are agreed then

        international English should be proper English with none of these funny spellings like "color" or funny words like "transportation" then ;-).

        Alternatively, if outsourcing continues then international English will be the English spoken in India.
    • Well...

      suffice to say, if I had posted a string of Chinese characters, you wouldn't have the least clue what I was saying.

      At least with English, we have a chance...and I should have included Brits and Irish alongside that list of co-workers, as I HAVE run into plenty of moments when I had absolutely no idea what they were English.
      John Carroll
      • Who was it who said

        a language is a dialect with an army and navy.
  • No, we don't know the future

    At present because of the United Kingdom's historical economic predominance and the United States' current economic might English is considered the world language. There is no guarantee that English will continue to dominate.

    More people speak Chinese than English. The USA's high tech states may be on their way to having Spanish speaking majorities.

    Here in Germany, a few years back it was considered cool to speak English or drop a few English words into conversation. As a native English speaker here in Germany I have seen English progressively fall out of fashion. Even young people now consider Denglish (mixing German and English) a bad thing. Most hip German pop groups sing in German nowadays and have a lot of chart success.

    Germans have finally got domain names with umlauts and scharfes S in. They have waited years for that. How would you like it if you couldn't have your name properly spelt in your domain name or internet address?

    The chance to learn a new language is an opportunity not an imposition. If you want to read Chinese web sites, don't be an idle, stick in the mud, do yourself a favour and learn some Chinese!
    • I do speak French...

      ...and to be honest, the idea of learning Chinese has occurred to me. That doesn't change the fact, though, that language cacophony has high costs.

      Likewise, I seriously doubt that English will stop being the world's trade language, because a) it's a LOT easier to learn than Chinese, and b) most of the world learns it already. It's like the Latin of the ancient world, and the only thing that displace that was a complete collapse of the world's economy and a 1000+ years of the "dark ages." Of course, no guarantee of that not happening to us (nuclear holocaust scare films certainly suggest it could happen), but I consider it less likely now that we are at least TRYING to integrate the world into a cohesive whole.

      We aren't going to rewrite the world's programming languages into Chinese. Nor are we likely to change the world trade language, because that would take WORK.
      John Carroll
      • Our English...

        ... is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Sure a lot of people learn english, how many speak it well? Indian call centers anyone? If we're going to move to a standardized language, pick one that is easier to grasp by ALL parties involved.
  • Its all GREEK to me!

    Roger Ramjet
    • Yes, we should standardize to one language.

      Esperanto. Include Incubus in your movie rotation!
      • Doh! Meant to have that in top level! (NT)

  • mathmatics, the universal language

    precisely the reason to do away with domain names and go to an all digit address, like the telephone numbers that no one seems to complain about.
    • I complain about them

      I hate using the phone and hate remembering another meaningless string of numbers. Mathmatics is the universal language but it is not terribly efficient to express abstract ideas easily. Just it is isn't terribly efficient to represent numbers in binary as it is decimal or hex.
      • I agree

        The simplicity of the internet is partly based on the ease with which you can remember URLs. I also think of that simplicity is driven by consistency, and starting to expand the character set used in domain names will make it less consistent across cultures.

        On that note, I don't know how hard it has been for Korean or Chinese speakers to remember URLs. Maybe it has been incredibly difficult, because the character set is essentially alien. On the other hand, maybe it's something they quickly understand. Latin character set names ARE alphabetic, which is a lower barrier to entry than a pictogram-based language (I think that's the word).
        John Carroll
        • ideograms.

          As well as pictograms etc. etc...

          Computer use itself is a lesson in latin languages though. Imagine a 5k and 1 keyboard. Not that they haven't adapted methods for handling that. Still, I say, WGIG should embrace Esperanto! ;)
          • Language

            I say they should find out the language they speak in What and embrace that.
            Third of Five
  • Lingua Franca?

    2000 years ago the language of Inclusiveness of the Western World was Latin. 1000 years ago the language was Arabic. 200 years ago the language was French. Now the language of International trade was English, but ten years before your time John C we were encouraged to learn Russian (just in case). A hundred years from now the language of trade may be Punjabi or Mandarin.

    What was my point? You're being rather provincial and fixed in time in your thinking, though undoubtedly you're much better prepared for the Tower of Babel than I am.
    John Le'Brecage
    • Why English will likely prevail

      Never in the history of the world has so much of the world been unified by one language. Granted, I don't pretend that most of the world approaches the English language as native speakers do, but in a growing number of professions, English is THE way people communicate, irrespective of where you are located. I lived in a french speaking area, and English was so pervasive that most of the native english speakers never bothered to learn French.

      That's going to be a hard thing to change. Granted, it has been changed before, but never before has a language has such global preeminence. It took a 1000 years to strike latin from common usage. I should think it would take even longer with English, particularly given that it is a living language that is now driven as much by those who have adopted it as those who speak it natively.

      English preeminence is an accident of history. It's not, however, a negative accident, at least if one considers the productivity gains to be derived from standardization on a language that is (relatively) easy to learn.
      John Carroll
      • Arguments for linguistic diversity

        If English will inevitably prevail then we can just let it happen. No special action is required.

        Franco tried very hard to wipe out Basque and Catalan without success. The English tried to stop people speaking Welsh also without success.

        As a native English speaker I would also strongly resist the kind of cultural imperialism you are proposing.

        People want to learn English because, at least at present, it is the international language. However everyone also wants to preserve their native languages. If international internet committees ignore this then separate cultural and linguistic groups will inevitably rebel and set up their own rival internets. This would mean that you couldn't access web sites in languages other than English even if you wanted to.

        No the internet must be multi-lingual. Trying to do it any other way will result in disastrous fragmentation and much less understanding between nations.

        Also think of the cultural losses. When the last native speaker of a language dies, so does the much of the culture and literature of that language.

        Just because the Americans and English are dull and complacent where languages are concerned doesn't mean the rest of the world is.
      • Always dangerous to predict from trends, but...

        Always dangerous to predict from trends, but observe: with each speed increase in interaction technology, there's been a more rapid change in language replacement. As you yourself stated, Latin required a 1000 years to be displaced (and for Catholics far longer). Arabic? 500. French? 200. And now we come to English, which is still riding the crest of ships, telephone, radio and television, which assisted and led to its commonality. Along comes the Internet, which while it does not speed communications appreciably, makes communication cheaper and more accessible to the "civilized" world... what rising power will utilize the Internet to spread their language and make that speech the replacement for English?

        Whichever power rises to the top, perhaps? English being pre-eminent is no accident. Those who dominated the world spoke English. Had another nation ruled an empire on whom the sun never set, to be followed by a superpower whose ambition was the first one fueled by the atom; we'd have a different "common" language now. There's no manifest destiny involved therein, but just the natural uptake of the ruler using his influence to establish his language on the ruled.

        Personally, I'd rather English stay the language of chjoice for my lifetime. I've no desire to learn another (human) language. Yet I observe around me co-workers learning Mandarin and children learning Japanese, and immigrants with fine English teaching Punjab and Urdu to Statesiders. There are bilingual classes in many southern States, mandated by law and taught in both English and Spanish. All of these languages are possible candidates to replace English.

        Well, maybe not Urdu, with apologies to my Pakistani friends, but the others: yes.

        To assume that English is right for the Internet is to assume that the trend of language replacement has suddenly gone from exponential to flatline. To assume that English is that right language to choose is based on the belief that the dominant cultural agent will always remain dominant. History teaches otherwise: shall we rewrite it together, simply for "economic good".
        John Le'Brecage