Is the language of new media only English?

Sunday, February 8, 2009
For journalists, academics, traditional authors and bloggers, the written word has been the primary tool of influence.  It is quite universally recognized that English has become the lingua franca of the internet age.  

A Japanese scholar with a dual degree in biology and applied linguistics, who is currently developing an English for Academic curriculum for the Biological Sciences department of a top Japanese university, recently confided to me that she felt there is no longer a single academic journal published in Japanese that can truly be considered world class. The reason was not that Japanese doctoral programs don't produce enough talented scholars. Rather, her point was that the best scholars know that they must publish in English to solicit appropriate peer review.  

It is only with global exposure that scientific research can be appropriately assessed and evaluated.  Because much of the world's scientific community publishes research in English, the trend is that all scientific research must adhere to this norm.  The professor lamented that if her colleagues' studies are published only in Japanese, nobody will read them.  Or, if they are read, the time which was required to translate and circulate them would render the research without value.  In the fast paced world of biotech development, when a scientist has tantalizing results, it is a mad dash to get the results published first! An edge of even a few months ahead of one's  competitors can mean the difference between a Nobel prize and anonymity. 

Attending the social media conference for non-profits got me wondering if community developers, NGOs and other enterprises felt the same pressure to produce content only in English.  Or, is localized content still king when it comes to development, social justice, migration, poverty relief, environmental work, or other policy areas?  Does the multi-national, American-centric perspective of new media bias the tech community's understanding of the world? Or should the world simply localize the media tools which so frequently develop from the bosom of California's Silicon Valley? 

When I lived in Asia I didn't use Facebook.  I had heard of it, but there was no need to check it out because I exclusively used the Japanese social networking site MIXI.  My blog posts were in Japanese and so were my communities of friends.  But when I contributed to a gay activism and networking community in Asia, I wrote in English.  

I believe that the trend among many of the leading social media companies is to have their tools equipped with localized language tools.  Want to post YouTube videos in Chinese? No problem.  Care to update your Facebook status in Arabic?  Just click to change.  But are those facilities merely window dressing for users less proficient in English?  My Moroccan sister in law uses English for Facebook and blogs in Arabic.  Should she be made to feel the need to publish her content in just one language?  Why have I stopped writing in Japanese since I moved back to the US?  And what of San Francisco, with a rich mix of ethnicities and languages? During this conference, I only heard one reference to producing a social media plan with other languages in mind.

Do the social media tools we use tie us down to one identity?  When the vast majority of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual, surely we should we aware of the value of a diverse social media plan.  When compiling a list of objectives and choosing tactical approaches and media tools, there must surely be some merit to considering whether the language question.  Is English the only language of social media or do we use it exclusively because it is the only one we speak?

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