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Multilingualism over the Internet

Multilingualism over the Internet

July 2011


by Jessica Cancila and Federico Guerrini

"Languages are the best vehicles of mutual understanding and tolerance.
Respect for all languages is a key factor for ensuring peaceful coexistence,
without exclusion, of societies and all of their members,"
Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO


In this newsletter, we are presenting a discussion on Multilingualism over the Internet. In particular, we offer a short review investigating and exemplifying the mutual interplay that can intervene among Multilingualism and the Internet.

Today, according to UNESCO, less than one hundred languages are represented in the digital world. To deeply understand the problem, consider that there are approximately 6.800 known languages spoken in the 200 countries of the world. Among those languages, 2.261 have writing systems while the others are only spoken.
Considering the increased importance of the role of cyberspace for access to education and information, an important objective would be increasing the presence of different languages over the Internet. To reach this aim, UNESCO, through debates and projects, actively supports language policies promoting and facilitating linguistic diversity on the Internet and best practices relating to multilingualism and multilingual resources and applications.


Multilingualism for the Internet: Multilingual resources

An increasing number of Websites chose Multilingualism as a way to spread their content and reach a larger community of users. To exemplify, we can cite F. Grosjean Web page The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual, where 31 oral languages and 4 sign languages are represented. While Arabic itself faces changes induced by media usages (R. Bassiouney, Arabic and the Media, Brill 2010), recent political facts, culminating in what has been called the 'Arab Spring', have seen in the use of English, besides Arabic, an important mean of diffusion. In fact, as Kathryn Corrick recently summarized at International Journalism Festival (Perugia, Italy), the use of English in Social media, such as Facebook, Youtube or Twitter, has increased the likehood of being read by Western media.
A website that counts articles written in over 255 different languages is Wikipedia. First launched (formally) on January 15, 2001, by the end of the first year, people around the world had contributed to over 20.000 articles that were written in 18 different languages. By the end of 2003, two years after Wikipedia first launched, it contained articles written in over 46 different languages. While there are over 255 different languages, many of the languages are not represented very well quite yet, which means that there is a lot of room for growth. The language with the most articles is English followed by German, French, Polish, Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.
An important multilingual project for the Internet and Natural Language Processing is WordNet. WordNet is a manually constructed electronic lexical database, conceived in 1986 at Princeton University by psycholinguist George A. Miller. The aim of the project was to test the theories on human semantic memory created by researchers in Artificial Intelligence. Nowadays, in the international version of the project (Global WordNet), born in 2002, database exist for 35 languages, from Africaans to Turkish, including Latin and Sanskrit. Wordnets for typologically adverse languages pose novel problems, especially with respect to the concept of word or the morphology of agglutinative languages such as Turkish and Estonian. The Wordnet Web constitutes a powerful tool for multilingual Natural Language Processing (NLP) applications, such as information retrieval, semantic tagging or disambiguation. As an example, the search engine may find pages containing semantic related words such as 'horseracing', 'racecourse' when looking for 'horse'. Or even 'ippica' and 'ippodromo'- in Italian or in a language at your choice.


The Internet for Multilingualism: Best practices


Beside the use of multilingualism for the new media, we can exemplify the use of the new media for multilingualism. A large community of users meets virtually in Facebook or in the Internet to actually learn languages. The Polyglot Club is a Non-profit Organization, whose mission is to create exchanges with native speakers to improve language skills or discover new cultures. Besides these experiences, blogs or Website to learn languages are flourishing all over the world.
The BBC Website offers free lessons of 36 languages. Besides other kind of material, the BBC Website teaches Beginners' courses through which students may learn all the basics and get a certificate with the help of weekly e-mail tips (available in French, Spanish, German and Italian). Tutorials offered by Shenker easy can be found on Youtube and
learning conversational English is becoming easier. Your pronunciation is not 'native-like'? Join the Skype Community to meet native speakers for conversations via Skype. Or watch movies on Yappr (to learn English), with subtitles in English, Chinese, Japanese Portoguese and Spanish. On Mangolanguages, Livemocha, Busuu, students will find free lessons and exercises. Blogs, as Learn Italian, L'italiano da lontano or Laowai Chinese: Tips and Strategies to Learn Chinese, offer tutorials, exercises, communities and flexible schedules.


Mandarin Student is the Mandarin language learning blog of Chris, a student from Bath in the United Kingdom who has decided to undertake learning Chinese online. The Chinese language learning resources Chris has accumulated to help himself are offered to other students.
We met Lorenza, founder of L'italiano da lontano, who passionately reports that, through her online school of Italian, students can virtually meets Italian teachers and other students from all over the world and learn Italian with professionals in a easy way. Online lessons can also be used by students to practice a new language and maintain active their level once they go back home, says Daniela of Lucca Italian School.
Communities of bilingual (or aspiring so) families meet over the Internet through dedicated blogs, such as Hocus & Lotus (Italian/English) or Bilingue per gioco / Bilingual for fun (Italian/English), Bilingual Fun (Spanish) and many others. Hocus & Lotus are two fantastic prehistoric animals, the Dinocrocs, half dinosaur and half crocodile who live in
a park. The stories are the method through which children from three to eight years old will manage to learn a foreign language at school. The programme is based on an innovative methodological approach, whose efficacy has been documented in various publications, and it's founded on the most recent acquisitions of evolutionary psycholinguistics
research. Teaching a foreign language is therefore obtained creating at school a relational context similar to the context in which the child learns to speak his first language.
To conclude, we may mention other Websites which offer resources about languages:, a guide to most of the world's alphabet and other writing systems; and, where it is possible to find the widest and deepest set of dictionaries, grammars, and other language resources on the Web.


Please share your thoughts and information on 'Multilingualism over the Internet'. E-mail to:

  • jessica DOT cancila AT
  • meridium AT unistrapg DOT it


About the authors:

Federico Guerrini

Federico Guerrini is a freelance journalist, covering technology and social networks on a regular basis for the national daily La Stampa and for other newspaper and magazines (, L'Espresso, Il Sole 24 Ore Nord Est, and others). He also wrote seven books on social media and the Internet, among those: "Facebook Reloaded", "Alla scoperta di

For contacts: federicogue AT gmail DOT com


Jessica Cancila

Jessica Cancila is researcher at Department of Language Sciences, Università per Stranieri di Perugia. Her research interests include Interactional Sociolinguistics and Multilingualism. Over the years she has studied discourse and interactional processes in dialogues in which one speaker has dementia. Her recent work has focused on politeness, relational practices and identity (de)construction in family interactions. Another line of research focuses on multilingual issues (multilingual education, acquisition of L2 Italian morphology and phonological attrition for socio-linguistic reasons). She is part of the Meridium research team.

For contacts: jessica.cancila AT gmail DOT com





Multilingualism over the Internet: Unesco report


The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual (F. Grosjean)

Website to learn and practice languages - Free Language Exchange Community Non-profit Organization. - Skype Community – BBC Website – Shenker easy


Examples of Blogs to learn l anguages - Learn Italian - L'italiano da lontano partner of Lucca Italian School http://www.livemocha. - Laowai Chinese: Tips and Strategies to Learn Chinese - Mandarin Student - Livemocha - Busuu - Mangolanguages


WordNet and related projects – Global WordNet – WordNet.


Blogs, Networks, On-line resources for Bilingual families/ Risorse on line per famiglie bilingui

Hocus & Lotus (Italian/English) – Bilingual bicultural family Network (English) – Bilingual for fun (English) Bilingual fun (Spanish) Bilingue Per Gioco (Italian)


Wikipedia - Wikipedia Official Website - Multilingual Wikipedia

Metalinguistic Resources - -



loghino Meridium