Fitting in with the Finns

Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. That’s all we do when it comes to online multilingualism (NUblogs passim: alpha, beta, gamma, inter alia). We mutter “Mee-ow!” and use the Americans as our preferred scratching post. Our dear Amerikanski friends figure that, since they invented the Internet and dominate pop culture worldwide, everyone else might as well just give in and learn to use English Web sites with American precepts. Come on, English-speakers are the majority, right? And what red-blooded American wants to be a minority? It’s tantamount to Communism.

Of course, many of us are not in fact red-blooded Americans, and some of us are even Communists. Refusing to serve us in our own preferred language and customs is creeping Disneyland.

You knew this already.

An article, taking an Economistesque tone despite being published elsewhere, examines the future of English in cyberspace and meatspace.

A study at Stanford University, California, showed that countries... whose language has never been exported have a high English content in their developing use of the Internet. The figure for Bulgaria, for example, is put at 86%, and for China at 82%. Scandinavian countries whose languages are similarly restricted to their national boundaries also have a relatively high percentage of Internet English – 46% for Denmark and 40% for Sweden.

However, in European countries that have spawned world languages themselves, the level of English use on the Internet is much lower – around 25%. This includes Spain, Portugal and France.

[...] It is self-evident that the amount of E-commerce in non-English languages relates to the economic activity in the regions concerned (if Asian economies suffer a downturn, so will their online transactions). But it also depends on whether the providers of goods and services in English think it worthwhile to translate their entire Web sites. Many marketers argue that skin-deep localisation won’t convince buyers. But recasting an entire site into, say, Luxembourgeoise, can be costly.

The funny thing? It does not follow that English-language sites are sufficient for countries whose native languages are spoken only in those nations, like Finland. Residents of such countries learn English to communicate with foreigners, not each other. If you’re trying to sell something to the Finns, you are pretending your enterprise carries out business within Finland. Yes, the Web is World Wide, but in an age of global interconnectedness, local focus becomes precious and desirable. Shopping in cyberspace, to use merely one example, is supposed to be better than shopping in meatspace. Meatspace shopkeepers in Finland speak Finnish. Talking to Finns in English only makes your site manifestly worse than real life.

And anyway, why do you want to seem like a foreigner? Indeed, isn’t this the true ramification of the “American English! Love it or leave it, pal!” philosophy so many clueless U.S. firms espouse? Isn’t it true that America is all about fitting in? But isn’t the only way to fit in online to speak your interlocutors’ language?

But you knew that already, too.

Posted on 2001-04-13