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Susan Moeller

Susan Moeller

Posted: October 30, 2009 06:50 PM

Media Literacy 101: Losing Our Ability to Listen to the World (in English)

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The online world as Americans know it is about to change. Big time.

The decision to allow Web addresses to be written completely in non-Latin alphabets, taken by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, (ICANN), the international organization that oversees Internet domain names, is not just a huge deal for most of Asia, the Middle East and wide swaths of the rest of the world -- it is a huge deal for Americans.

Up until now native English-speakers have had a tremendous advantage online. English has been the Internet's lingua franca, typically the second language of choice not just for those who speak European languages, but especially for those who write their languages in other scripts -- in Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, Thai, etc..

Bloggers in the Middle East, in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia have until now often written in English -- even when they have most wanted an audience of their peers. And this tendency has meant that English-speakers have had a privileged seat at the global table, able to listen and contribute to conversations that non-English speakers have not been privy to.

The ICANN decision directly addresses one facet of the digital divide -- the divide not of electronic access but of language barriers. "As a critical mass of bloggers come online in languages other than English, there is less need for them to write in English in order to gain a mass audience," said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, in response to the ICANN announcement. "That could have an impact on the direct view English-speakers currently have on the world, with English as the default language of the Internet."

Currently, of the 1.6 billion Internet users globally, over half use a language that is not written in a Latin alphabet. So it is at best cumbersome to type in a domain name (the part of a URL that comes after the dot, such as .com, .org, .uk, or .ru) that uses Latin letters when one's keyboard is in another script. Now with the ICANN decision, starting next year, an entire Internet address can be written in another language alphabet.

ICANN's president and chief executive Rod Beckstrom framed ICANN's decision as "an historic move toward the internationalization of the Internet." As he noted in his speech during ICANN's annual meeting in Seoul, Korea: "We just made the Internet much more accessible to millions of people."

And that's true. Looked at in that light, ICANN's vote today is an astonishing -- and belated -- gift that will give over half the world a kind of easy access to the Internet that we here in the US have taken for granted.

But viewed in another light this ICANN decision may be a tipping point in the developing world's interest in learning and communicating in English. If that's the case, then initiatives such as Global Voices' Project Lingua that uses volunteers to translate its blog features into other languages, such as Bangla, Farsi and Macedonian, in addition to Chinese, Japanese and Arabic ...and English... will become more and more important.

What this new decision means is that "we" Americans are just going to have to put more effort into communicating, and stop taking for granted that everyone in the world wants to speak "our" language.