If I were bilingual, I could do my own research on this one

While I was getting ready for work this morning, I listened to a local news story on NCPR about border guards who have to leave their sidearms on their own side of the line, and cross at official stations, when doing international law enforcement work. Sounds dumb, I thought. Someone should fix that, I thought. And then I realized that the announcer had not referenced FOIA, but instead the Access To Information Act, prompting me to think, “I should check that in Wikipedia. I wonder what that act is, if it’s not FOIA?

Which I did. It’s the relevant Canadian law. See link above.

My second bit of pondering, mascara in hand and radio announcer long forgotten, was about Wikipedia. I’ve gotten into the habit of skipping Wikipedia’s opening screen when I’m going there to check on a fact or answer a quick question — I use my Firefox search box to go straight into the content of the site. The thing the opening screen shows you, though, is how many articles are in which language version of Wikipedia. What I started thinking about was whether the language you speak affects the information you find in Wikipedia. I mean, if the law in question hadn’t been a federal Canadian law, but a law of Quebec, would I have found the same quality and quantity of information on the subject in en.wikipedia (2.2 million articles) as may be in fr.wikipedia (600,000 articles)? And how would I know, since I’m not fluent in French? (That’s possibly a bad example, due to the bilingual nature of Canada and the resultant duplication of information in both languages, but roll with me, here.)

I know this isn’t a new question. Information is and has always been produced and shared in the language of its community. However, when the community is a one of shared practice, that often means a common language is adopted by the community regardless of the language of individual members, requiring translation before dissemination. I have the bias and privilege to be a native of the language that often is adopted by communities of shared practice, and so I’ve had the luxury of not needing to wonder what I’m missing — so much of it comes right to me, in forms I can use, that I don’t encounter many gaps.

But I wonder about the changes in information production and dissemination that seem inevitable given the relative ease of adding information to venues like Wikipedia in your own language, regardless of community use or scientific standard or international agreement. What information is being put into the Frysk Wikipedia (fy.wikipedia), for example, or into other language-specific, community-specific sites that isn’t being shared in any other language? As the online information commons grows and expands, how much is it also fragmenting? How do we, as information consumers and information professionals, capitalize on that richness? And how do we understand our own biases?

As I reached the end of that line of questioning, my peanut butter toast was ready to be eaten, and I went back to listening to the news. But I’ve mentally revisited this through my morning’s work. What do you think?


  1. It is not just cultural communities. There are words in a medical dictionary that won’t be found in an accounting dictionary. Thus, an accountant won’t have a thorough understanding of medicine, depending which lawyer you ask. Consider the word “integration”. In electronics, it means putting lots of transistors and such on the surface of a crystal. In math, it means summing up an infinite number of infitessimal areas. In school, it meant busing in students of disadvantaged races. Should some almighty government entity regulate the precise singular definition of all words, or would that mean we would all be still speaking stifling latin? Teenagers prefer to invent their own terminology, cause its cool, and really hot. Is slang contributing to the richness of language, or is the sloppiness creating another barrier to transmitted understanding? Inevitably, to easily send information from a fringe language to a weird language will involve a stop with the mainstream language. Instead of learning to say the same thing in a different language, perhaps its better to learn a different part of knowledge. Be satisfied with the mainstream language.


  2. Hi Jenica

    The best short exposition of these issues that I’ve read is ‘Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge’ by Jean-Noel Jeanneney et al. Originally published in French (Jeanneney heads up the Bibliotheque National de France), after he started a campaign highlighting the marginalisation of non-English languages in Google’s book digitization project, it had a tremendous impact, and struck the right note – Google wasn’t trying to exclude non-English stuff, it’s just that the founders and the libraries they were in partnership with were all English language natives and didn’t think through the consequences. It didn’t pop up on their radar till Jeanneney et al kicked up about it. Now there’s more French language stuff at least.

    It’s only some 70 pages or so, and, if you’ve not thought about these issues before, is a tremendous eye-opener without being aggressive or partisan. Or just Google-specigic, for that matter.

    Best wishes



  3. Thanks, Anne. I will definitely check out that article. I remember when it first came out, and the conversations that swirled around it, but it wasn’t on my radar of interests at the time. Excellent reminder, now that my mind’s turned in a new direction!


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