It was only a few weeks ago I wrote about the future of the English language, and I’m already about to eat some of my words. At the time, I suggested that the internet would help English grow in popularity. Now that anyone can talk to anyone else in the world, regardless of geography, a common tongue is more useful than ever, and since English is the most widely used second language, I figured it was a sure bet.
But I may have spoken too soon. According to this infographic from Smartling, the fastest growing internet language is not English, but Chinese. Check out the 3-layer pie chart below – it shows the languages spoken by internet users in 2000 (inner circle), 2005 (middle) and 2011 (outer).
You can see that over the last 11 years, English speakers have fallen from 39% of web users to just 27%. Chinese (labelled ZH in the picture) is just behind, at 24%, but is catching up quickly (in 2000, only 9% of web users spoke Chinese). Also seeing rapid expansion are Arabic and Russian speakers.
Contrary to what I suggested, the diversity of languages on the web seems to be growing rather than shrinking. According to Smartling, it’s because developing nations are catching up to their developed brethren. In English-speaking countries, just about everyone who wants the internet has it by now – the market is saturated. But China is still adding users by the thousands, and shows no sign of letting up.
This points to a future where the linguistic diversity of the internet more or less matches the real world – so much for a lingua franca.