The global language mashup: Blurring linguistic lines in the age of social media

Communication among the world’s ever more interconnected and interdependent citizens is no longer limited and mediated by the number of people who have the time and talent to learn multiple languages. Just as it is no longer necessary to board a plane in order to immerse yourself in another language and culture, it is growing ever less important to become proficient, let alone master, every language in which you wish to communicate. High quality translations with a low tolerance for error will be best left to professional, human translators for some time to come. But that isn’t slowing the current wave of innovative technologies and applications that are enabling more and more people to bridge language barriers almost instantly and for free. You have only to visit Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and many other online communities, more of which seem to be springing up daily, and you’ll quickly find thriving communities of people from around the world communicating in a variety of languages about a broad range of topics, often mixing languages in the same thread.

Making this possible is the increasing number of fully internationalized sites and services. Users aren’t waiting for localized versions of sites such as Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and others. The interface may not be localized, but nearly every major social networking service employs UTF-8 (Unicode) encoding and full internationalization, allowing users to view and input content in their language of choice.

What does this trend toward an increasingly level linguistic landscape mean for organizations who wish to do business globally? What does it mean when word-of-mouth, whether good or bad, can quickly jump from one language to another? And what should a company do when the global community isn’t just discussing their product, but actually appropriating it outright and creating a local language version, as is happening with the Economist magazine in Chinese and with Japanese manga and anime in English and other languages? As the music industry continues to learn the hard way, pursuing and litigating against your fans and customers is likely to backfire and do far more damage than good. But on the other side, the dire predicament of the newspaper industry shows us that simply setting your content free is not the answer either.

I’ve been selected to speak about this at the Berkeley Globalization Conference (LISA @ Berkeley) taking place August 3–5, 2009 at the University of California, Berkeley, Clark Kerr Campus. I hope you’ll attend and join the discussion of current trends, risks and opportunities inherent in a world of increasingly accurate instantaneous machine translation and crowdsourced localization.

Whether you can join or not, please share your thoughts here. And I have a favor to ask: If you come across interesting examples of multilingual communities, crowdsourced localization — or any other innovative tools or approaches to multilingual communication online, please send them my way. If I use them in my presentation, I’ll be sure to give you a shout out!

About the Author

Steve has spent more than a decade building global brands and helping clients succeed online in the U.S. and abroad. A seasoned online business strategist and marketer, Steve has significant experience in the technology, entertainment, health care, publishing and travel & tourism industries, among others. In addition to writing magazine articles and white papers about international marketing and technology trends, Steve addresses audiences around the country, from the Japan Society of New York to the Software Association of Oregon. Steve is a citizen of the world, with a focus on Asia, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he works for Connective DX, a global agency serving clients from offices in Portland and Boston.

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