Ruwandi Perera has the varied argot of localised internet usage down pat

If the internet was a person, would it be a ‘he’ or ‘she’? Will he or she be young or old? And more importantly, in which language would they speak – English, Mandarin, Russian, Sinhala or Tamil?

While Sri Lanka celebrates the native Sinhalese and Tamil New Year this month, it seems ironic that we send text, video and photo messages to one another mostly in English!

Of course, the tide is turning with more Sinhala and Tamil language wishes also coming our way – and this is precisely where Sri Lanka is heading: towards a linguistically local internet.

There are over 7,100 languages spoken around the world and while this number is on the decline on an almost monthly basis, about 90 percent of them are spoken by fewer than 100,000 people.

Interestingly, only a few hundred of these languages are used in cyberspace with many global sites using even less.

English is undoubtedly the most used language on the internet. Compared to its use by over 80 percent of browsers in the mid-1990s however, English has shrunk in usage and only covers about a quarter of online content. Other popular languages used online include Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, German and French to name a few.

So what are the benefits of localised content?

The most obvious benefit would be the higher number of internet users since many are restricted purely on the basis of illiteracy – of English, that is. Having content in one’s mother tongue removes this language barrier and encourages more people to venture online.

From a content point of view, enabling local languages means there’s more content being uploaded onto the web every hour. And with easy methods such as Google Input Tools being readily available, anyone who can match the phonetic sounds of a language can easily type in any lingo they desire.

Here in Sri Lanka for instance, many people email and text in Sinhala or Tamil, and they use these languages to communicate on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. With the door to cyberspace being wide open, digital inclusion has certainly expanded, and the gap between urban and rural populations has narrowed. Everyone is able to enjoy, use, learn from and do business on the web.

The type of localised content in Sri Lanka leaves room for improvement. With Gossip Lanka News and other adult sites being the most visited Sinhala websites in this country along with Facebook, news and other entertainment platforms, the quality of localised content has to improve if Sri Lanka wants to develop its online footprint.

On the brighter side, having Sinhala and Tamil as optional internet languages is immensely helpful in times of disaster. During the recent floods, social media was the platform that made it possible to share more information faster and connect victims with relief workers.

Localised internet usage turned the tables on Facebook when the country endured deadly communal riots last year. As witnessed by the local Facebook community, these riots were in part fuelled by social media with extremists sharing graphic content of attacks to induce more people to take to the streets and riot.

Further, the use of Sinhala to spread hate messages kept Facebook blinded to the horrors that were unfolding on the ground. The use of language can be tricky to understand if it isn’t a native tongue. For example, the word for ‘brother’ in Tamil has hardly any negative connotations – except when it’s used to spread hate speech about Muslims.

And when someone reports the use of this word to Facebook, the reply is likely to be ‘this does not violate our community standards.’

While access to Facebook was shut down for almost a week in the island due to the riots in Kandy, its administrators admitted to being too slow to understand what was going on. The platform has reportedly begun recruiting more Sinhala speaking staff, and informed the government about plans to work with civil society organisations to familiarise itself with different aspects of language such as insults and epithets.

It was once assumed that to enhance a child’s education, one should be literate online. This was also translated into being literate in the English language – because like it or not, success in Sri Lanka is closely linked to the language.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be proficient in English to use the web these days. Oh and by the way, subha aluth avuruddak vēvā (happy new year)!