My Own Story

I’ve spent my whole life immersed in multilingualism. My family is from Bulgaria, so my first language was Bulgarian. I learned how to speak English once I started preschool. Since then, English has become my dominant language (both on and offline), though I continue to speak Bulgarian with my family.

When I was in middle school, I started taking French classes, which I am continuing here at Middlebury. I took Japanese for three years in high school, but sadly have forgotten pretty much all of it. I started taking Russian when I came to Middlebury, and am now at the intermediate level.

I’ve always valued having a mix of languages and cultures in my life. You would think my experience on the internet would reflect that multilingualism, but the reality has been much different. Yes, I operate in more than one language on the internet, but it often feels like swimming upstream.

As far as apps go, the ones I probably use the most are YouTube, Spotify, and Instagram. Most of the videos I watch on YouTube are in English, though I also follow two Bulgarian vloggers and occasionally watch videos in French. On Spotify, the majority of the music I listen to is in English, some French songs mixed in. On Instagram, the content I view is overwhelmingly English-oriented, with exception of some French and Bulgarian accounts I follow.

Besides those apps, all my other internet activity is almost entirely in English. Google searches, maps, podcasts…once you have a language preference set, it is difficult to deviate from it. In the past, I’ve experimented with switching my phone to French, but even this fails to achieve the seamless, multilingual integration I would love to have.

As someone who’s dominant language is English, I have an incredible amount of privilege when it comes to my use of the internet. As I outline in my research, around half the content online is in English, and many of the world’s top YouTubers, musicians, and other content creators also operate in English. So, if I struggle with multilingualism on the internet, I can only imagine the difficulty non-English speakers face.

Survey: Language in the Digital Sphere

As part of my analysis of language use on the internet, I created a short survey and sent it to various people within the Middlebury community. This survey is NOT mean to qualify as research. Instead, it was my intention to use it for reflection and as a conversation starter. I had no technological tool for processing the data, meaning I had to analyze the survey results manually. For this reason I chose not to distribute the survey to a large number of people. It would have taken too long to look through a huge number of responses. I sent the survey to three groups: my Russian class, my French class, my Intro to Translation class from Winter Term, and the DLINQ staff and interns. All in all, I received 35 responses.

I’d like to examine the results from the survey, keeping in mind that these results are skewed given the small group and the characteristics of the participants (mostly people who are involved in language and speak multiple languages).

Characteristics of the Participants

Age: The majority of the survey-takers were in the 19-30 age group, and another large portion was in the 0-18 group. This means that most of the participants are digital natives and have lived their whole lives surrounded by the internet. As this age group interacts with the digital sphere more than anyone else, they are more likely to face language barriers, but also to use language online in unique, creative ways.

Dominant Internet Language: Almost all of the people who took the survey wrote that English is their dominant internet language. That is, English is the language they usually read with, write in, and listen to online. This is unsurprising considering that participants attend an English-speaking institution in an English-speaking country, and are majority native English speakers.

Gender: More than half of the survey-takers were women. Although I do not expect this to have a significant impact on language or internet use, it goes to show that the participant group is not an accurate portrayal of the Middlebury community

Language Use Online

Internet Multilingualism: The majority of participants said that they do operate in more than one language online. However, for the question that asked which language you use for which apps/websites, even a few of those that responded “no” to the this question listed multiple languages. In other words, the number of participants who use multiple languages online is probably higher than this chart suggests.

Think about the websites and apps you visit most often. Do you mostly use one language for some, but a different language for others? For example: using Spanish to write social media posts, but watching YouTube videos in English. If so, please describe.

Since one of the groups which received the survey was my French class, a number of the responses had to do with learning French. This brings up the important consideration of the internet as a tool for language learning. Accessing social media and video platforms can be an important way for students to encounter language styles and vocabulary that they otherwise would not be exposed to in a classroom setting.

“I read newspapers and some social media posts in French, but do the vast majority of my Internet reading, writing, and interaction in English.”

“Sometimes I watch youtube in French but just if I want to practice”

“Watching YouTube videos in French and scrolling through French instagram. I speak English!”

“I use English for most things but Spanish or French for Netflix and TikTok to improve my comprehension.”

“I read a lot of news articles in French but do almost everything else in English.”

“mostly English but some Youtube and news reading in French”

“I use most social media set in French, and I follow and consume media from French speakers, especially on YouTube and Instagram. I still use social media in English for the most part, though.”

A few of the responses demonstrated amazing multilingual ability. The diversity of the languages these individuals work with goes to show how important it is to encourage seamless multilingualism online.

“I mostly operate in five languages: English, German, French, Portuguese and Spanish”

“hindi for netflix, french for some videos, english for studying /websites, Gujrathi for some social media”

“I watch youtube videos in English, Chinese, and French. I consume English content on Reddit, and I consume both English and Chinese content on Instagram. I text people on Wechat using Chinese, and on Snapchat using English.”

“Youtube in English and Japanese, news in Spanish and English, social media in English and Chinese.”

Language Representation

Is your dominant internet language different from your dominant “real world” language?

With this question I was trying to see if participants who normally use one language were forced to switch to another language when using the internet. Since the majority of participants said English was their dominant language both on and offline, most of the responses to this question were “no”.

How often do you feel that language presents a barrier to your interaction with the digital world?

As expected, since most of the participants feel most comfortable in English, most people said they face little to no language barriers online. Even so, around a third responded with “sometimes”, which may imply that even for English speakers, there is a desire to access non-English content online.

Think about the language you feel most comfortable using offline (i.e. your native language). Do you feel that this language is well-represented online?

Again, as most of the survey-takers were native English speakers or use mostly English, the majority response to this question was “very well-represented””.

Interest in Multilingual Content

How interested would you be in accessing foreign language content online if it were translated in an efficient and effective way?

Despite the fact that most participants use English as their dominant language on and offline and experienced little to no language barrier, the vast majority indicated they would still be interested in accessing foreign language content. This goes to show that the reason for creating accessible online content goes beyond just making the internet more usable for speakers of less-represented languages. It also serves the interests of those who do speak well-represented internet languages.

If more online content foreign language content was effectively translated, do you think it would expand your horizons and allow you to learn more about other people and cultures?

Similar to the question above, the majority of participants answered “yes” or “yes, very much” to this question. Once again we see the importance of accessibility not only for speakers of less-represented languages, but also for speakers of dominant languages.

Multiple people wrote about their interest in foreign content online, but expressed facing a variety of difficulties. For example, some people found it hard to even find such content in the first palce:

“It’s often SO HARD to access the “french internet” or the “spanish internet” starting from the regular english web.”

“I feel as though it can be difficult to truly reach different parts of the internet.”

“There are large media barriers in general, and we don’t often get news outside of our own spheres. Even if it were easier to access other english content, I’d be appreciative.”

Others mentioned that even when they did manage to find this content, imperfect translation tools presented a barrier to fully engaging with it:

“Access to streaming media services has introduced me to new genres and styles. Subtitles have been helpful, however imperfect translations break the connection to the media.”

“I often use the “translate this” option on various sites/systems. I follow a number of people on Instagram from various countries and I’d really like to know what’s going on in the comments. I also work with and create digital tools for people in other countries. Making multiple-language options is difficult and time consuming. I wish there were better systems.”

“I know that instagram has a translation tool built in, but I have found it to be very unreliable and incorrect so I try not to use it.”

“I still remain highly doubtful that the content I usually access (i.e. pertaining to “culture”) can be ‘effectively translated'”

This emphasizes the need for more effective, seamless translation tools. Again, this technology would be useful for speakers of both dominant and non-dominant languages.