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Lingua Internetica

May 11, 2011

An EU-wide survey finds that 90 percent of Internet users prefer to surf online in their own language, and may be an online barrier. Nearly half say that they never spend money online in a language that isn't their own.

Greek website
Some Europeans feel they are missing content in other languagesImage: Arbor

According to a new study released Wednesday by Eurobarometer, the public opinion research wing of the European Commission, over half of EU Internet users occasionally use a language online that is not their native language. The study also found that 90 percent of EU Internet users prefer to use sites in their own language.

However, according to the study, 44 percent of such users felt that they were missing something interesting online because some websites are not in a language that they understand. The Eurobarometer survey questioned 500 people in each of the 27 member states, or a total of 13,500 people.

"If we are serious about making every European digital, we need to make sure that they can understand the web content they want,” wrote Neelie Kroes, the EU's comissioner for the digital agenda, in a statement. "We are developing new technologies that can help people that cannot understand a foreign language."

The European Commission is currently investing 67 million euros ($96 million) across 30 research projects that investigate improved techniques for translation of digital content, including 2 million euros to the iTranslate4 website, a relatively new site that provides machine translations of many European languages.

Mikko Hypponen
Mikko Hypponen says English may not dominate the Internet foreverImage: Matthias von Hein

English is still lingua franca

Not surprisingly, the survey confirmed that English is Europe's lingua franca online: Nearly half (48 percent) of those interviewed said they use English "occasionally" online.

However, this practice varies across the continent. Member states with historical ties to the English language, like Cyprus and Malta, as well as countries that have strong English education, like Sweden and Greece, say that they will turn to an English site if a version in their native language is not available. By contrast, only 45 percent of Latvians and 35 percent of Italians would do the same.

But the study examined more than just content that people read. On the economic front, just 18 percent of EU Internet users surveyed said that they buy online in a language besides their own "frequently or all the time," with 42 percent saying that they never do so.

China's online presence growing

Ruslan Trad, a Bulgarian blogger at the president of the Forum for Arab Culture in Sofia, says that he mostly works online in Bulgarian, Russian and English and that these survey results more or less mirror what he has observed online. English, he added, is also his lingua franca online.

"The use of English has long established itself [almost as a] law," he wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle. "English is the working language of the conferences - including online projects. Projects in which I participate require the use of English and I think, today, this language is best known by most Internet users."

Mikko Hypponen, a computer security researcher at F-Secure in Helsinki, agreed, adding in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle that he works with many languages online, but "English is by far the largest."

But, he noted that Europeans many have to look far beyond their borders for the linguistic future of the Internet.

"I think it's important to note that as China's online presence keeps growing, eventually Chinese will be the most common language on the net, by far," he wrote. "After all, English is only the third largest language by number of native speakers (after Chinese and Spanish)."

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kate Bowen