Sunday, October 16, 2011

Linguistic observations

When I started using the internet and related networks (long time ago now - late 1980s) it was pretty much an entirely English language thing. The critical mass was pretty much not there for much to happen in foreign language forums. What did happen was in Usenet, and although much smaller clusters of non-English Usenet groups did exist in certain places (German, for instance), even if I had wanted to use them they were not generally brought into Australia anyway.

Things moved on, and when the web and blog became dominant, the non-English net did become a bigger deal, but it was isolated. Multilingual people who did want to be heard in the English word would generally blog in English. A few people would maintain multiple versions of their blogs in different languages, and blogosphere in other languages became very extensive, but a blog tends to be in a single language.

What I am finding interesting in the world of Facebook and Twitter, though, is that these are somehow much more multilingual media. People who speak more than one language seem to be happy to update social media in a mixture of languages, and which they use depends on context. Many conversations are in a mixture of languages, too. I know lots of multilingual people, because that is the sort of life I live, and my Facebook and Twitter updates now contain streams of Swedish, Albanian, and Spanish, amongst other things. From time to time I find myself using Google's translation tools to figure out what is being said. The etiquette is different, too. If you a comment in Spanish on an English language blog, people will tell you to stop it. In a conversation on Facebook, though, the onus is much more on you as a reader to figure out what it means.

I will be interested in seeing whether the social networking companies respond to this. If I set my reading language to English, will they offer me some automated system where they look at my feed, observe the languages of comments and attempt to translate them for me, possibly alongside the original. Will we eventually reach a moment where machine translation is so good that the language variations in such a feed will go away again. Not for a while, I think.

For the moment, though, I find that as an English speaker I am peering into a world that exists for a great many people but not for me. Multiple languages are one of the regular facts of life. Conversations can be in multiple languages, and can change almost from sentence to sentence. However, for much of the English speaking world, things are not like that.

I have that mental block that tells me that learning a second language is so hard as to be almost impossible. This is probably silly, as much of the world has managed it. In contrast, I would see learning, say, calculus, as very easy. On the other hand, most of the people of the world have not managed to do this.

Update: To that, I would add that I follow far more of the western European languages than I do the Russian or the Hebrew, both of which also appear in my streams in reasonable amounts. I can read Cyrillic when I have to, but it is work. I have no idea whatsoever how to read Hebrew. Both, I know, can be translated using Google language tools. However, both seem foreign enough that I generally will not do so. I can understand enough Spanish or Swedish to be tantalised, so I then do take this to the next step.

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