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The Net's a Small (English) World After All

February 23, 1996|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The globalization of the Internet, common wisdom says, will make our world smaller.

And the growth of the Net worldwide, experts add, will only speed the spread of English as the common language of the globe.

In the aftermath of World War II, English surpassed French as the official language of Western diplomacy. And in the ensuing decades, it also became the unofficial language of world commerce. Now, as the Japanese cybersurf, China adds its own Internet backbone and commercial online services invade Europe, English may very well become the indisputable medium of world culture. Some in France and elsewhere, however, are resisting this tsunami of English cybersurf.

"The Internet will be another great force for the Anglification of the planet," says St. Jude Milhon, a Bay Area computer culture author and longtime hacker.

The reasons seem simple enough: The Internet is anchored in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of World Wide Web sites (4.3 million hosts), newsgroups and chat rooms are based here. Most software, especially that which is used to navigate the Net, is written in English. "Search engines," such as Yahoo, that help cybersurfers search Web sites by subject are largely in English. Even computer keyboards are often based on the English alphabet. And for e-mail to be a two-way street, people need to speak the same language.

Although the number of non-English Internet sites more than doubled last year, 90% of Internet traffic worldwide is in English. In Japan, most corporate and university Web sites are in English. And in France, the growth of the English-dominated Net has so alarmed leaders that they have formed a group, la Francophonie, to preserve the use of French in cyberspace.

French President Jacques Chirac said recently that English domination of the Internet poses a "major risk for humanity: linguistic uniformity and thus, cultural uniformity."

And therein lies the rub: Instead of seeing a small world of multiculturalism, many foreigners view the emergence of the Net as another tool for American cultural imperialism. A small world to us becomes a drone of "It's a Small World [After All]" to the rest of the world: Disneyfication, rock and American schlock culture have yet another avenue to flood the world.

"I sometimes regret that English is used in French newsgroups," says French Internet surfer Jean-Pierre Binisti.

"If in this new medium our language, our programs, our creations don't have a strong presence, our future generations will be economically and culturally marginalized," Chirac told la Francophonie.

Some folks stateside view the Net's spreading tentacles as a plus.

"If it's going to be a vehicle for improving a country's prosperity, then it's going to be a good thing," says Louis Gallio, executive director of AsiaInfo Services Inc., a Dallas-based company that scored the contract to install China's Internet backbone. "You can still maintain your culture and learn a different language. Most Chinese start learning English at a very early age."

Milhon agrees. The Internet, for better or for worse, is going to need one common language, and "it's not going to be C++ baby," she says, referring to a computer programming language.

"English is a good language," she says. "It's like a cultural melting pot from way back. We have elements of French, Latin, German. . . ."

But she does agree that "culture is determined by communications," and that the phenomenon may very well lead to "the Los Angelization of everything," i.e. the domination of pop culture.

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Yet to the contrary, some note that, instead of broadening horizons, the Net in America has already become a place of distinct enclaves, cliques and subcultures--many with unique dialects and fierce isolationism. What would make the global Net any different?

"There seems to be reasonable evidence that cyberspace actually makes it less necessary for people to join the melting pot," says Jonathan Aronson, director of the School of International Relations at USC. "You may even keep your language that way. You don't assimilate, you stay in your communities, you do not learn English."

Indeed. There is nothing that prevents, say, people in Germany from creating Web sites in German, newsgroups in German, chat rooms in German. The only pitfall--if it is a pitfall--would be that those sites, groups and rooms would be isolated from the English-speaking majority in cyberspace.

In fact, software is being developed that will allow for easier Net navigation in almost every language imaginable. A multilingual Web "browser" made by Alis Technologies can translate English Web sites, for example, into more than 75 languages. Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer are coming out in Japanese. And Pacific Software Publishing of Seattle is developing a program that will translate Japanese-character e-mail into English, and vice versa.

But Pacific Software President Ken Uchikura is still a proponent of an English-dominated cyberspace.

"If you can read English," he says, "you can go to almost any site in the world."

Virtually speaking, of course.

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