Language Decisions in a Connected World

Sometimes I get the feeling that the world is growing bilingual. What I mean by this is that I constantly live in two languages alternating between the two all the time and without really spending a lot of thought about it.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one and I notice that for a lot of people in and from Germany who spend their time on the internet it probably is the same. Ever since the rise of the DVD and the internet we have access to media in foreign languages that we didn’t have before. I remember the thrill of being able to watch a movie in English back in the nineties or actually finding the book you wanted in English at a bookstore.
Now it’s normal to have the original audio for any movie you watch on DVD or BluRay and you can order pretty much any book you like in the original language from amazon or other online retailers.

But most of all there’s the internet. With the pages I visit regularly, the discussions I have and the online media I consume via YouTube and podcasts I would guess that I spent at least 50% of my time consuming content in English – a language that I didn’t start to learn until I was nine years old. I actually think it’s more than 50%, but I don’t really have a way to measure it.

This also means that I constantly have to make decisions about in which language I write whatever I choose to share on the internet – and it’s not always an easy decision.

In short, decision about which language to use boils down to a few simple parameters:

a) How many people to I want to reach?
b) Where are these people?
c) Is there a specific group of people I want to reach?

And finally there’s gut feeling or the simple case of something sounding better in either German or English.

I think I tend to write in English more often for the simple reason that I assume that most anyone who is interested in what I write is capable of understanding English, so I don’t run the risk of somebody not understanding what I’m writing about.

The only place where I stick to one language exclusively and by my own decision is this blog. Since I put more effort in these articles than for most anything else I publish on the web, I want my posts to be available for as many people as possible and not put up any language barriers.

The other place where I use English only is on goodreads, but this is due to the fact that in the forum I’m active in discussions are in English. I’m pretty sure there are discussion boards where people write in German, I’m just not a part of them.

As for the other places I write and publish stuff, tumblr I think is 99 to 100% English because it’s mostly reposting of things I found.

Twitter and Google+ though are both. These are incidentally also the sites where I actually interact with other people so sometimes the language choice is easy, since I’m reacting to something and naturally use the same language. Here though I sometimes deliberately decide to use German instead of English.

Sometimes it really is a question of what I think sounds better… especially with Twitter where I have to shove content into the space of 140 characters, this is really comes into play. Sometimes I use German because I really think what I write about will be mostly interesting to people from Germany, since they can relate better to what I write.

And here’s another thing: Sometimes it feels like I’m drifting away from my own language. I notice that since I read and write so much in English I start to think in English, too. Which I think is totally weird, since I’ve never even lived in any English speaking country. But I guess I expose myself to this language so often and on such a regular base that it just becomes second nature to me.

As a consequence I might decide to use German, because it still is the one language where I have next to no doubts at what sounds right and what does not and where I am still most confident in making puns and playing word games. This also might mean that not all of you understand what I’m writing about, but I’m okay with that.

What I would like to know is how other people who grew up with English as their second language only handle their language decisions on the web? Do you make conscious choices or does it come naturally? Do you have your own native language pockets which are unaccessible to people who do not speak that language?

Also, for the native English speakers, are you aware that a lot of people out there are deliberately shoving their native language aside and actually using a second language to communicate on the web? Because sometimes I forget myself that this is technically a foreign language for me, I’m just so used to using it that I don’t think about it anymore.

Ein Gedanke zu „Language Decisions in a Connected World“

  1. I'm a native English speaker having been born and raised in Liverpool in the UK (Those from the UK may now insert joke about people from Liverpool not really speaking English, and how Scouse is hard to understand these days) however being involved in computing from an early age I am used to talking to people from all over the world, but in English. Even if it's usually American English. With so much of the computing world having been developed in the UK and America early on even the programming languages are pretty much a form of English, so anyone who was involved in the early pre-internet networks tended to use English as the common language.
    I have to say I feel envy at anyone who knows another language, such as my wife. Born in Denmark, moved to Norway aged 13 and then to England at 24. We're now both 37. So she has three languages at conversational level. What I've noticed is that these days she will always respond on the internet in English, even when the original post may have been in Danish or Norwegian. I presume she knows how well the person can read English, and being Scandinavian so many of our generation can that it's not an issue. She'll only use a native tongue when posting on her younger cousins walls or twitter accounts.
    I do have split feelings about this online. I like that all these languages exist and hope that they always will, but there is a lot to be said for having one common language to use when you want to speak to the widest audience possible, but that's an easy thing to say when that language currently happens to be the one I know the most. Who knows how it will be in fifty years time. Might all be Chinese or one of the African dialects.

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