Twitter’s language problem

tripeLast week in Paris, the husband and I went to a local restaurant in the neighborhood where we were staying. We’d been doing okay up to that point in the trip with our non-existent French proficiency. At this bistro, the menu was completely in French (there weren’t even any pictures to help us cheat). I’m a notoriously picky eater and scoured the menu to decipher the words I could and hopefully ensure that I wouldn’t be ordering something I didn’t like. In the end, I chose a dish where I thought I had translated most of the words correctly. I figured I’d be getting Andouille sausage with peppers and shallots. When the owner of the restaurant sent over the lone waiter who spoke some English and I placed my order, he raised an eyebrow.

“I do not think you like that?” he said.

“Isn’t it sausage? Saucisse?” I asked him.

“No, it’s tripe. Like a stomach.”

I quickly switched my order to steak.

In my two-week sabbatical from social media, I made a ton of observations. The first, and probably most notable, was how much I take communication in English for granted. The online tools I use are in English and designed for the English-speaking world. All of the connections that I’ve made on Twitter are with English speakers. This seems like an obvious point, but for all the talk about how social media is tearing down barriers and letting people connect anywhere, anytime, well, it’s just not true. Plenty of non-native English speakers are on Twitter, but without instant translation there’s really no facilitation for me to connect with them. I’m sure there are brilliant marketing and PR minds who blog or tweet in German, French, Spanish, Mandarin or Italian. But I’m not going to find and connect with them online the way I have with English-speaking pros, because I can’t understand what they’re saying. And if they’re not proficient in English, they have no reason to find and connect with me, either.

I’m certainly not trying to sound ethnocentric here and demand that English become the lingua franca of Twitter and the Internet (although in many ways, it already is). Many social media platforms are now available in foreign languages (heck, Facebook even allows for an “English -Pirate” option). I have several multilingual friends whose Facebook walls are an even mix of English and additional languages, based on who they’re talking to. Certain countries, cultures and language groups have developed different social networking sites that are popular within that community but not among English-speakers (think Mixi in Japan or Cyworld in South Korea). However, despite it being easier than ever before to connect and communicate with people from anywhere in the world, the online language barrier is still there and in some cases, it’s very high.

Twitter is dominated by English speakers, and I don’t really see that changing. But part of the fun of Twitter is seeing who your followers are replying to and following and then clicking on their names and seeing what they have to say. I’ve discovered many new friends this way. It’s much harder to make those types of connections when tweets are in a language you don’t speak.

I think a few interesting things could happen in the near future regarding how “global” the Twitter phenomenon becomes:

  1. Twitter will remain an anglophone service and non-native English speakers won’t join. English is a hard enough language to learn as it is, without taking into account the ROFLs, IMHOs, FWIWs and FTWs. If non-native speakers do join Twitter in droves, then I would expect the Twitterverse to become somewhat segragated by language: French speakers predominantly follow and interact with other Francophones, Spanish-speakers tweet with other Spanish-speakers, etc. You’d end up with sub-communities within Twitter that likely wouldn’t overlap a lot.
  2. Non-English speakers wanting in on the joys of microblogging will flock to or create similar services in their native languages. There will end up being a Dutch version of a Twitter-like service, a Swedish one, a Portuguese one… each of these services might even incorporate other cultural hallmarks specific to the language community (differences in privacy controls, for example).
  3. Instant or near-instant translation services will proliferate and get better and language will start to become less of an issue in allowing people to connect online. It would be great to have a Firefox plugin that could automatically, accurately translate a Tweetstream into a language of your choice, thus allowing you to connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t. I’m talking real-time, in-converstaion translation. There are some big potential pitfalls here (can auto-translation really capture nuance, figures of speech, euphemisms, etc.?), but the alternative is just never connecting with someone who’s not fluent in the same language as you.

In an excellent post a few years ago on her blog, Stephanie Booth pointed out that most people won’t use Web services that don’t talk to them in their language (it’s a long post but definitely worth reading).  Around that same time, Shel Israel noted that in the absence of translation tools, bloggers who blog for business purposes often need to move from the local network to the global one, and that usually requires English.

I’d love to hear your thoughts here. How do you see Twitter in specific, and social media in general, growing and adapting to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages? How do we connect with people but make sure we don’t end up eating tripe?

Image via Flickr user dipfan