Chinese students surfing on the Internetphoto © 2009 Hygiene Matters | more info (via: Wylio)

English is the most spoken language on the internet, with more than 550 million regular visitors across the globe. Yet just this past year, China’s presence on the web swelled with 36 million new users, bringing the total of Chinese speaking people up to 440M+. Already ranked number two online, the Chinese language has much more room to grow in the years ahead as China’s internet saturation is still well below the West. According to The Next Web, the Chinese language could become the dominant form of communication on the web in less than five years. Take a look at the cool infographic below to get a taste of what’s coming. Is this another sign of the growing friction between China and the US? Will English content everywhere be subsumed by Chinese ideograms? Are we doomed to use those incredibly confusing Chinese keyboards? Um…no, and please stop freaking out. Yes, Chinese may become the most spoken (or typed) language on the web in five years, but that’s just a symptom of China’s general expansion in the world market. Of all the effects brought about by China’s growing importance, language doesn’t need to be your top concern. In fact, translation technology will probably make the rise of Chinese a net positive for everyone.

China has been expanding into ever major business industry out there from space travel to boy bands. At the moment, the nation is the fastest growing economy and the world’s largest exporter of goods. With the increasing importance of internet commerce, and the key role China plays in international trade, it makes sense that the Chinese language is likewise expanding and exporting itself through the internet. In the near term, more people who want to do international business will find it advantageous to learn the Chinese language, that’s fairly clear. Yet I’m pretty sure that smart entrepreneurs knew that 20 years ago. Or 200 years ago. Trade with China is nothing new. Chinese hegemony in international business, science, politics, etc. might be an important concern for everyone. But the one thing you may not need to worry about is the ‘dominance’ of the Chinese language on the internet. Why? Translating technology will level the playing field, minimizing the
effect of any language becoming more popular on the internet.

We’ve been covering universal translators a lot recently, and it’s not just because we have a Star Trek fetish. That technology is getting better, and it’s doing so very quickly. Google Translate provides incredibly fast text translations for 57 languages including both simplified and traditional Chinese characters. If you use Chrome, those translations are built into your browsing. On the audio side, we’ve got smart phone applications that will convert spoken conversation from one language to another, and Google is about to compete in that arena as well. In other words, our words are about to become a lot more versatile. Why would we call any language dominant when everyone is able to type or speak in their own preferred tongue and be understood by anyone? In five years, China may have more users than any other nation on the internet. But the prevalence of the Chinese language is likely to be one of the mildest consequences of that change because it will be mediated by superb text translation.

That’s not to say that fluency in a language won’t still be important. Audio translators in your mobile devices will help you communicate with people in different languages face to face, but it won’t be able to compete with true fluency. Those looking for an edge in business, or who want to study culture and arts first hand, still need to learn languages. The intimacy formed through speaking directly to someone in their own native tongue is going to remain valuable in many situations. With China likely to play a bigger role on the global stage in the years ahead, Chinese is a valuable language to invest in.

So, if you’re a young parent out there in the world and you want to have your child learn a foreign language do you pick English, Chinese, or Spanish (the top three languages on the web)? The truth is that any additional language is an asset and will continue to be an asset. For a while, English may have been sold as a possible universal business language, and some may now be turning towards Chinese as its successor. Yet I think the true advantage of such a trade language is in being able to speak to as many people as possible. No one can be an expert in every language of the world…but a computer can.

For most of us, then, technology is going to provide us the communication skills we’ll need. The universal translators of the future aren’t going to be perfect, but they should be adequate. For now, most of us only need to view China through the lens of a consumer (i.e. news and retail sales) and in that regard current Chinese to English text translation is passable. Go ahead and try it out. Fire up Chrome, visit a Chinese website, and see what happens. You probably won’t feel like you know everything that is going on, but you can probably answer two simple questions: “do I care about this enough to learn more?” and/or “do I want to buy this?” It will be even better five years from now. With improvement we’ll be able to move from bare-bones shopping needs to mass media cultural consumption (blogs, TV, movies, etc). In fact, the amount of content you’ll be able to access is going to blow your mind – and it’s not all going to come from China.

You may not realize it, but you are denied tons of great content on the internet everyday due to the language barrier. When’s the last time you watched a Turkish soap opera, or listened to an Indonesian radio show, or read a Korean op ed? That will change when universal translation technology truly comes online. All the songs, novels, and philosophies we are currently missing will be opened to us and they won’t be alone. As billions more of us adopt the internet in the decades ahead the flood of thoughts is going to be amazing, and advanced translating tech is what’s going to keep us all afloat.

So boo to all the people who freak out about language preservation and language dominance. The aim of your anxiety is off.  Yes, China is making big waves in the global market, but that doesn’t mean that Chinese is going to be some sort of universal trade language of the future. In five years, entrepreneurs will still need to learn Chinese, but consumers won’t. (Who knows, in ten years maybe entrepreneurs won’t need it either.) For the majority of the world then, the rise of Chinese on the internet is going to mean the same thing as the rise of Spanish and Japanese – more things to read about and enjoy.  I’m looking forward to the growth of languages on the internet and the great content they will bring with them. Global communication is going to make our world a much better place… and it will help us realize that there are some things that we all love equally.

[image credits: Wylio (as listed), Internet World Stats, The New Wave]
[source: The Next Web, Internet World Stats]