It shouldn't be any surprise that the language of the World Wide Web is English. After all, the United States invented the internet in the first place, and English is currently the language of international commerce. Although the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland and now spans the globe, it first went mainstream in the US, growing exponentially in size and popularity from there. This all but forced others to conform to the existing standard if they wanted to participate in the areas that had already been set up.
Fortunately, it seems that English is an extremely common second language for people to have these days. Everything2 is an English web site, and strongly encourages English contributions, or at least English translations of foreign language contributions. But in the attempt to standardize the flow of information such that all of the content here is available to the largest possible audience, it's easy to forget that many of our contributors are from non-English speaking countries.
The majority of the noderbase of Everything2 is from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. This is to be expected of course, as those countries make up the lion's share of most English-speaking websites, for reasons of common language, high living standard, and large populations. Although we have contributors from Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Paraguay, Israel, and many other countries, it's very easy for a strong English as a Second Language speaker to go unnoticed in the crowd.
That's why I started this project. Our ESL noders have integrated themselves so seamlessly into the Everything2 community that it's easy to forget that they're even here, and the longer they stay at this highly language-oriented website, the better their English skills become. But so long as they're here and trying their best to fit in, we lose a great deal of background information. How is it they learned English in the first place? How often do they speak English in the real world? What web sites do they use in their native languages?
So I tracked down several of Everything2's more active ESL noders and asked them some questions. The answers were very enlightening! First a little on the nationalities and language backgrounds of our contributors:
A German living in New Zealand, Heisenberg has spent the last several years living and working in various English-speaking countries, and grew up watching English Sesame Street on television. Besides German and English, he also speaks French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Greek with various levels of proficiency.
LeoDV was born, raised, and lives in France, and taught himself English by watching television (who says TV is a barren wasteland with nothing of value to provide?). It's common to speak some English in France, what with all those British tourists and all, but not very common to be fluent.
- Serial Number
A youngster living in Finland, Serial Number hasn't been to an English-speaking country yet, but is part of a new generation that is growing up with the Internet and its built-in English bias. Serial number also comes pre-installed with survival-level German and Swedish.
Our resident Sumo-loving Dane was raised on Swedish but moved to Denmark at age 9, and started learning English two years before that. English proficiency is considered to be a cool thing to have in Denmark, and is taught in elementary school. She also speaks some German.
Foreign languages are all over the place in ultra-liberal vacation hotspot Holland, so Sloebertje has a good background in English, French, and German, and some knowledge of Spanish, Greek, and Latin as well. Oddly enough, Sloebertje is one of the few respondents I got who speaks in English to other Dutch speakers from time to time, even when there aren't any native English speakers around. Sloebertje was interested enough in this project to write her own article, which can be found below this one, so I won't spend as much time on Holland as the other countries.
From the comparatively obscure South American country of Paraguay, Ancientsnow went to bilingual schools all her life and is fluent in English, with a basic understanding of Italian and French. This has led to the phenomenon explained in the code switching node, where she flips back and forth from Spanish to English with reckless abandon when speaking with others comfortable in both languages.
Russian, Hebrew, French, and English make up the linguistic arsenal of TheLady. Raised bilingual in Russian and Hebrew, she has lived in the former Soviet Union and Israel and is currently housed in England. English is very common in Israel, with the better educated and more privileged tending to be more fluent.
Some Universal Comments
I found several things to be fairly universal among E2's ESL population. For example most of them spend most of their Internet time on English web sites, with news and blogs making up the majority of their native-language browsing habits. They all write notes and drafts for their E2 articles in English as well, to avoid the hassle of translating anything for the final draft. They've all either learned English in school or by near-constant exposure to the all-pervasive touch of American media, which has overshadowed local entertainment in many countries with its huge budgets and enormous talent pool. And most of them have at least some basic knowledge of at least two languages, however it should be noted that this is basic survival skill in Europe.
And that all-pervasive American media cannot be avoided. Depending on the country, subtitling or dubbing may be more common, but chances are good that the most popular movies will have been made in Hollywood and American sit-coms and soap operas can be found on the television. It's just too hard to compete with the huge talent pool and massive budgets from the US. Unfortunately, this means that the media in other countries is becoming heavily influenced by American entertainment, and there may be a danger of losing some of their own cultural uniqueness.
Finally, despite what Smala Sussie had me believing, it seems to be very unusual to speak English with one's ESL friends without a reason, for example if there is an English speaker nearby who shouldn't be excluded. Conversely, English is a very convenient common language for two ESL speakers with different primary languages, and reports indicate that the only factor involved for understandability is the level of English fluency of the speakers. It doesn't appear that any other cultural or linguistic baggage affects the conversation, save for a possible thick accent.
English is simpler than German, but from all I've heard German is a very complex language. German and Dutch are excellent languages for swearing in, it's very satisfying to spout a Teutonic or Dutch curse or two when you need to blow off some steam. French of course has provided English with myriad loanwords, as it's very good at making the vulgar sound classy. Otherwise, English seems to have a larger variety of synonyms and ways to express yourself than many other languages, making it easier to speak precisely. This is not always a good thing, as it also makes English a bit more crude and less poetic.
Stereotypes and Prejudice
The most problematic stereotypes on the internet seem to be German, French, and Israeli. One of the benefits of the web's anonymity though is that nobody knows your nationality unless you bother to mention it. In general, people seem to assume everyone on the internet is American unless they have reason to believe otherwise. This can be a blessing or a curse. For one thing, it tends to cut down on the "outsider" status that might otherwise take effect, and it removes the stereotypes and prejudices. On the other hand, people are less forgiving of grammar and spelling mistakes and culture gaps than they might otherwise be.
It was good to discover that E2, being a very cosmopolitan website, is much more friendly and tolerant of other cultures, nationalities, and fluencies with English. It's one of the few places where people have a reason to advertise their nationality, and feel comfortable doing so. Furthermore, its focus on English writing, especially the technical aspects of grammar and spelling, is excellent practice with English fluency (in writing if not with speaking).
What's more, noders tend to be friendlier and nicer people than the internet population at large, which honestly probably isn't very difficult. There seems to be a genuine interest in what our eclectic mix of cultures can do for our community. International nodermeets seem to happen once or twice a year, I've even been to one myself in Mexico. All in all, being a community that loves to read and learn, there is a lot of interest here in learning about other countries from a first-hand source.
So if you're an ESL noder and are ever stuck for something to write, tell us a bit about your home country! We've got entirely too little information on non-English speaking lands for all the representation we have. I can't speak for everyone, but I'd love to read it.