Monday, 16 December 2013

The Internet’s Harmful Effect on Languages

By: Hayder Al-Ani

Everyone knows just how wonderful the internet is. It is a treasure trove of information of all shapes and sizes. Its virtually unlimited potential can be used potentially both for a great deal of good or harm.

However, one of the most harmful effects of the internet – apart from the usual complaints against inappropriate content, exploitation and abuse, internet bullying, over-usage, advertisements and spam among others – is the negative effect it is having on languages.

Languages are in essence, systems of communication (whether verbal or nonverbal). They constitute the basic mechanism by which humans (and other organisms too) communicate and exchange information with one another. It takes years if not centuries for languages to develop and blossom into distinct and discernible means of expression. Today, the most popular languages across the globe are English, Chinese (Mandarin), French, Spanish and Arabic.

Through the widespread dissemination of the internet, different nations and their associated cultures and languages have spread their influences across their physical borders. No longer are once parochial languages like Flemish or Swahili reserved to specific geographical focal points but are now instead,
available globally through various sources for all to see. Recent free web technologies like Google Translate among others have made it even easier for the interpreting of one language to another and the translation of obscure languages – thereby bridging communication gaps. Image source:

Paid software, like Convocco’s interpreting and translation (including its face to face, telephone and video interpreting) service has also contributed to improving linguistic understanding both in the UK and abroad. In spite of the greater reach and scope of spreading and popularizing languages, not all languages are benefiting from the phenomena. According to a recent study by Norwegian linguist Andras Kornai, less than 5 percent of world languages are in use online – resulting in the other 95 percent of global languages being left out. This does not bode well for the shelved majority as according to the Alliance for Linguistic

Diversity, already over 40 percent of the world’s languages are endangered. Even countries with multiple official languages or language dialects can witness such glaring inequities. Kornai cited the sweeping differences in the use of Norway’s two official languages – being Bokmal and Nynorsk – as a case study. Though both receive equal support in government and business, Bokmal is immensely more popular online for its associations with Norway’s advertising, music, fashion and entertainment.

In a different light, major languages too, are susceptible to the harmful effects the internet has on languages. Owing to the universal use of the language across the World Wide Web, no language is more vulnerable to the harmful effects internet than English. Over the years, various groups and subcultures have devised their own slang and terminologies whether they were computer programmers, hackers, internet gamers, porn viewers, or more recently, teenage chatters (the so-called “netizens”) on instant messaging services and social networks and their insatiable use of shorthand abbreviations, symbols and emotions.Networks like Facebook and Twitter have only compounded the situation. No longer are children today content with spelling out and articulating their emotions online. Rather, most would prefer to abbreviate what they want to say – using such conveniences like LOL (laugh out loud), ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing),

BTW (by the way), IDK (I don’t know), BRB (be right back), G2G (got to go) among others. Recent technologies like the meme (an image with user-generated wording) have further worsened the situation. Rather than using popular slang words and acronyms, certain expressions have gained a lot of traction through many social networking sites like ‘you only live once (YOLO),’ ‘faith in humanity restored,’ ‘epic fail,’ ‘Photoshop level 9000,’ etc. The worst problem of them all seems to be deliberately misspelling words and using bad grammar when chatting with others, for instance using “welcs” for welcome, “selfie” for self-picture or putting everything in lowercase including proper nouns and names like I, John, Smith, Washington, etc. in an effort to “fit in” and be more accepted and “cool.”

A similar, but equally starting fact is how modern internet users prefer seeing graphics and pictures over reading letters and words. With the barrage of content found online, people nowadays resort to looking at images online to “understand.” Hence the pervasive use of emoticons (i.e. smiley faces) and infographics in place of traditional text and articles.

Indeed the continuing saturation of the internet presents both benefits and challenges. Among the most pressing is how it is negatively affecting global languages – whether it’s shoving them into oblivion or eroding the very integrity and soundness of the language. The future of the translation and interpretation of languages will be a challenging one. In this respect, as human beings, we must do whatever it takes to preserve all languages and ensure their continuance for future generations to practice and articulate.

By Hayder Al-Ani
Convocco Ltd

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