There are over 7,000 languages in the world, yet the internet landscape is dominated by a mere handful. We seek to understand whether the proclaimed democratization of the internet is reflected in the experiences of the majority of its users who do not speak English as their first language or at all (Young, 2016).
The language that an internet user speaks, writes and produces content in has ramifications both online and offline. It defines the boundaries between an exclusive and inclusive internet and can widen the gap between those with access to digital spaces and those left out. When certain languages are not resourced online, a wealth of information is unavailable for large swaths of the population.
Despite the introduction of more users – and thus more languages – online, is the internet truly a multilingual place? If English is the medium of its infrastructure, do more participants in the internet common space simply choose to use English because it is “easier”? The diversity of languages online is more than the provision of more available languages in code and tools, but also the choices made by users regarding their visibility, accessibility and status. This project seeks to understand the internet experience of users whose native or primary language is not English. How do these users experience the usability, accessibility and trustworthiness of digital spaces? What challenges do they face and how do they navigate these challenges?
We studied these questions through qualitative, mixed-method research across four countries in the global South – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and India – between March and November 2022. The findings from our study are intended to provide insights to developers and designers to improve the accessibility and inclusivity of digital platforms from the perspective of language. Based on these case studies, we have developed a set of recommendations for developers and designers to improve the accessibility and inclusivity of digital content. These are presented in the accompanying design brief.
In Ethiopia, linguists, gig-economy workers, students and journalists in Addis Ababa discussed one of the dominant languages in Ethiopia (Amharic) and the impact of attempting to use a non-Latin script (ge’ez) online. Infrastructure such as foreign language keyboards and operating systems are often not designed for non-Latin scripts, resulting in many users defaulting to English for ease of communication. In many instances, users would consume content in English but redistribute it to their networks in Amharic or mother tongues.Read More
In Tanzania, urban- and rural-based respondents painted an interesting picture of a country where a local language (KiSwahili) is designated as the national language. Respondents in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza, and several rural areas outside of these localities, showed the potential for a non-dominant language to take precedence in online spaces. Yet, the core infrastructure of technology for digital spaces remains entrenched in English, often making it essential for online use and interaction.Read More
In Uganda, we engaged with informal-economy workers ranging from taxi drivers, motorcycle drivers and delivery drivers to market vendors, students, journalists, bloggers and farmers in Central and Northern regions (Kampala, Luweero and Gulu). As a former British protectorate, the legacy of English and its use online is strong; even with the use of local language, respondents tended to code-switch. There is a dearth of resources in local languages for Ugandans that do not speak English who want to be online.Read More
In India, our respondents were non-English speakers and avid smartphone users, living in semi and peri-urban regions and working as drivers on taxi-hailing platforms, security guards, domestic workers, sex workers, street vendors or owned small businesses. Data was collected in Delhi, Bihar, Hyderabad, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Goa and West Bengal. For many respondents, online activity seemed to be enhanced with knowledge of English. The combination of both English and the mobile phone represent a form of upward mobility.Read More