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The Privilege of English

February 11, 2018

The Economic Power of English on the Internet

I have been part of a growing number of conversations on privilege, both the U.S. version and European versions, which have slightly different focal points. What has been missing from those conversations is any discussion of the privilege of language.

While freelancing I took on a number of assignments that highlighted for me the amount of information that was available only in English. We explored the idea in Is English the International Language and Which countries are best at English as a second language?

Now, having spent more time in Europe I realize there is another angle to this story. When you realize the disparity that lack of English language skills can create in business decision-making, having access to English skills is a PRIVILEGE.

Gender and white privilege are debated by some, but the privilege of having English language skills is hard to deny.

English is dominating on the internet

English has become the principal method of communication among international businesses, financial institutions, academic research, media outlets, and even the entertainment industry.

Language can intensely affect your experience of the internet. It determines how much information you can get access to on Wikipedia or social media. A Google search of “restaurants” in one language may bring you back 10 times the results of doing so in another.





Organizations like UNESCO are worried that English’s “may drown out less popular languages.” Activists argue that English’s domination on the web could even contribute to the extinction of indigenous tongues. Perhaps we need an endangered language list.

UNESCO need not worry. With the increased use of the internet globally, English has taken a downturn. In the mid 1990s it was estimated that English made up 80% of the content. That number is now about 30%, while French, German, Spanish and Chinese have all pushed into the top 10 languages online. Chinese grew by 1277.4% between 2000 and 2010. Out of a roughly 6,000 languages in use today, the top 10 make up 82% of total content on the internet. Read more at Digital Language Divide.

Internet Penetration is a Factor

A factor in the decline of English content is the fact that English-speaking countries do not have the highest internet penetration. The internet penetration in Germany, Russia and Japan could drive more content in those languages. The Japanese are notoriously resistant to learning English.

A 2016 survey on English education in Japan showed that only 36.1% of Japan’s third-year junior high school students had achieved Grade 3 or higher English proficiency. The Japanese ministry’s target is 75% for high school and 50% for junior high school teachers by fiscal 2017.

There is a reason for Japan’s urgency. The country needs enough proficient English speakers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Some teachers are using the BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers to give Japanese students an example of spoken English – rather than focusing on written language and grammar. By any means necessary, the Japanese wants to make sure they have a supply of English speakers as Olympic volunteers, and workers in the lodging, tourism, and retail.

English language = economic opportunity = privilege.

According to Ethnologue, about 840 million people speak English around the world, either as a first language (335 million) or a second language (505 million).

At the current level of English language content on the internet, countries with the highest English proficiency –  the highest percentage of people who can speak English well, may have an economic advantage. That means that even non-English speakers in English proficient countries may have an advantage in the global marketplace. An English Proficiency Index (EPI), developed by the company that administers English exams to companies, identifies those countries that get a boost from English language privilege. It may be no surprise that the EU, which is doing well economically, is rocking the English.

The EPI report found that better English in a country correlates with higher income, higher levels of innovation and a better quality of life. Sidenote – in nearly all countries surveyed, women had stronger English skills than men.

Learn more about Language of Content on the Internet and for more internet stats check here.

Opportunities for Digital Nomads

The privilege of being a native English speakers offers economic opportunity for some digital nomads. The panic in Japan and the ambitions of China have created opportunities for native English speakers. Countries with lower English proficiency are ripe for English language teachers.

Some countries have launched public policy campaigns to increase their nations English language proficiency. We saw large billboards when we travelled through Colombia declaring English was the path to the future. Read about it in Two Broke Chicas on Amazon. The 10-year initiative, Colombia Very Well, launched in 2015, and aims to increase the number of Colombia’s high school graduates with an

intermediate level of English by more than 2000%. Colombia is a great place for Digital Nomads to earn income teaching English.

Native is More Natural

Even with the pressure to learn English, our native languages are persistent. Studies show that when we are in stressful situations we revert to our native language, like a health crisis or a legal situation. When you are in a crunch at work you may focus on content in your native language. So, it was not surprising to see this headline in 2013 English is no longer the language of the web.

“English will be a language of economic opportunity for most speakers: they’ll work and think in their mother tongue, but English will allow them to communicate, share, and transact.”

American entrepreneur, Jay Walker

AI to the Rescue

I use Google Chrome’s translation feature to translate the foreign language websites that I visit. There are many that believe AI will decrease the need to learn another language.

Google introduced a system for machine-assisted language translations, Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT). GNMT uses deep neural networks to translate entire sentences – not just phrases – which improves translations. Neural networks are designed to work much like the human brain.

In November, the company applied the system to Google Translate for eight language pairs, English and French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. These languages cover more than 35% of all Google Translate queries. In November, they expanded support to three more: Russian, Hindi and Vietnamese.

Facebook, which supports 45 languages, announced that all of its user translation services—the magic that happens when you click “see translation” underneath a post or comment—are now powered by neural networks.

Using AI allows the system to translate the whole sentence, instead of word by word. This leads to a more relevant translation. It then rearranges and adjusts the sentence using proper grammar. For languages like Czech, where word endings instead of word order define the action in the sentence, this is critical for an correct translation. You have to hear the whole sentence to correctly translate.

AI is bringing more accurate speech recognition to all 60 languages supported by Microsoft’s translation technologies.

“As the wave spreads these machine translation tools are allowing more people to grow businesses, build relationships and experience different cultures,”

Olivier Fontana, the director of product strategy for Microsoft Translator.

The Microsoft’s research team is building into these language technologies the ability to help people learn how to speak new languages, like their language learning application for non-native speakers of Chinese.

Microsoft isn’t the only one’s in the language learning business. That’s a story for another post. Stay Tuned for Learning a Language and VPN strategies.

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