A column by Nick Currie (aka Momus, whom I’d only known of previously as a somewhat obscure electronic musician) on Wired.com makes an interesting analogy between airline routes and how language and culture flow across the world: Both either go directly from point to point or radiate outward like spokes from major “hubs”. Like in the airline industry, the trend in cultural communication up until now has been away from point-to-point and toward hub-and-spoke:
One of the articles to emerge from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference was, “Cultural Diversity? A Pipe Dream.” In it, Rüdiger Wischenbart noted some shocking facts about the current realities behind book translation.
Worldwide, he said, between 50 percent and 60 percent of all translations of books originate from English originals. It’s sometimes higher: 70 percent of all books translated into Serbian, for instance, have English originals. In return, only 3 percent to 6 percent of all worldwide book translations are from foreign languages into English. English speakers, it seems, are talking a lot but listening very little. If this were the airline industry, we’d be talking about the kind of world where you can’t fly from Moscow to Berlin without changing in London.
The statistics go on to cover English dominance in movies (only in the US and India do people regularly go to see movies made in their own country) and, finally, the internet. But in this last category there at least seems to be some competition (emphasis added):
What about the internet? Well, English is unsurprisingly the dominant language, with 29.5 percent of all users communicating in it. Chinese is next, with about half the number of English users (159 million Chinese to 329 million English users). But Chinese is coming up fast, with more than twice the growth rate of English online. If it overtakes, does that make English a point-to-point language, or does Chinese just become the new hub, with all the spokes (at least the Asian ones) leading toward it?
A good question, but I wonder how much of that growth rate is coming from native speakers, either Chinese citizens or overseas Chinese (137 million of those 159 million users are inside China, where internet use is growing at an 8% clip), and how much is from second-language speakers from elsewhere in Asia or the world – my guess is that it is overwhelmingly from the former, and that Chinese on the internet is on the whole a fairly self-contained system. However, with more people learning Chinese around the world and the recent trend toward translating the Chinese internet into English, we’ll probably see a few more spokes emerge.