CINIC (China Internet Network Information Centre) will beginning rolling-out the brand new top level domain (TLD) .中国 this month. This marks an important turning point for the internet as we will see more and more countries using their own languages and scripts to browse and communicate via the web, and English becomes just one of many languages of the internet rather than its dominant lingua franca.
The very first non-Latin TLD, مصر. (Arabic is written right-to-left), launched in 2005, replacing Egypt’s previous TLD eg. for users of the Arabic alphabet. Arabic TLDs were also rolled out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Russia’s Cyrillic TLD, .рф, became operational in 2010. President of ICANN at the time, Rod Beckstrom, said the introduction of the new domains represented a “seismic shift that will forever change the online landscape”.
These new domains may have gone unnoticed to much of the English-speaking world but is unlikely that the new Chinese character domains, the first using a non-alphabetic writing system, will also fly under the radar.
To begin with, the proportion of internet users already using Chinese is far closer to English than Arabic or Russian. As of 2011, 26.8% of internet users used the English language, compared to 3.3% for Arabic and 3.0% for Russian. 24.2% use Chinese, over 500 million people. The growth in Chinese internet use in the period 2000-2011 was 1,478.7%, compared to 301.4% for English, it is fair therefore to suggest that Chinese will be the most used language on the internet within 2 years. Xinhua predicts 800 million Chinese internet users by 2015.
English has held sway over the internet for this long despite over 60% of web users speaking another language due to the nature in which the internet developed. Precursors to the modern web such as ARPANET were developed in the US, and the World Wide Web was invented by British engineer Sir Tim Berners-Lee. When most people first experienced the internet, it was in English, and while it is natural for English speakers, with our somewhat ingrained arrogance when it comes to foreign languages, to assume that this would always be the case it simply won’t be true within a few years.
Kids in the UK and the rest of the English speaking world will still experience the internet primarily in their native tongue, but now so will Chinese, Spanish and Brazilian children as well.