The Language Barrier in Wikipedia

On: September 20, 2009
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About Siying Yang
When she was 21, she came to Amsterdam for New Media studies from China. Now she is 23 years old, she has graduated but still living in Amsterdam, specially doing social media marketing in fashion industry. She begins to fall in love with Europe since the moment she was born, and currently enjoys Amsterdam a lot. She will never give up supporting Liverpool FC and language study.


No one can deny the fact that the widely use of Wikipedia all over the world nowadays. In order to make all people use Wikipedia freely, now it already has different versions of a large number of languages. As the first speaking language of the world, most entries are of English. But how many people use English Wikipedia? Are the content of English Wiki is the same as another language of Wiki, so that we can make sure every single person from other language speaking countries could get the equal information from Wiki.

The answer is no. As Chinese is my mother language, I tried some words both in English Wiki and Chinese Wiki, the outcome is a little different. Just because of curiosity I typed in a Chinese Geography word “Jishou”, my hometown actually, which is a small town in the south of China and even can’t be found out in the China Map. Although the content is almost the same, surprisingly, the information from English Wiki is more clear than Chinese Wiki. They both mentioned the economy, location, transportation etc. But the English Wiki revealed a more cleared map and even the education part of “jishou” city, which definitely make people know what this city exactly about. This is a bit weird, because Chinese people should be more interested in their geography, but they can’t get enough clear information from Wiki until they search in English Wiki pages. It is obviously that English word got a more detailed information in English Wiki as well, which seemed that Wikipedia served for English-speaking countries. Maybe we can also say that the content decide that people from which countries edit the page, so this means that Chinese speaking people do not like using or not get used to this website. However, to simply demonstrate how different content in various languages are, Hyunwoo Park, a student from the  University of California, Berkeley done a research that he searched the term “wiki” at three different Wikipedia sites(1): English, Japanese, and Korean, while the consequence showed that in Japanese Wiki website there has the most  metrics of items(23) and paragraphs(289), and Korean has the smallest number(which is 8 and 58 separately).

In my opinion, there are three reasons for the language barrier in Wiki. Firstly, the language barrier lie in cultural barrier. Each nation has its own culture which always created with the tradition and followed the history and language themselves. So that it is possible that some words only exist in a special culture can’t be translated into another language. There are an amount of Chinese words only have Chinese pinyin ways in Wiki because of this feature. If a non-English netizen wants to compose an entry from his own language in English Wiki, it is better to compose a related translated word in English, but this is hard to happen. Since it is acknowledged that a word wants to has its translation in another language needs to be confirmed by authority organization of linguistics, so people can’t just translate their own language into another word as they want. That is why I can find some words only appeared in Chinese Wiki, which makes the language barrier is possible. Secondly, Wiki focus on the resource to prove the information’s accuracy and authenticity to some extend. Nevertheless, some countries with long history has a lot of legends and stories that only be told generation by generation, which makes that sometimes people even can not find the related conception from written books. Especially for those ethnic with superstition, a lot of phenomenon could only be considered in a situation where no word could explain, not mentioning the books. Thirdly, many languages have totally different characters with other languages and English, which lead them hardly be accepted by English-speaking people and English Wiki.

Language barrier also can be seen from the update speed of the words. In English Wiki, as far as I know, new words can be found in time, which is decided by the enthusiasm of netizens. In other language Wiki, like Chinese, I could not even find a lot of new words that are very popular amongst Chinese netizens since 5 years ago in Chinese Wiki. There is one thing that made me confused as well, that the same conception found in Wiki have different references, English Wiki has English version of reference while Chinese Wiki has reference all in Chinese. But they both have the nearly same content, maybe we can conclude that Wikipedia set up in a basis that objective enough.

Besides, when I tried to search some English words in Chinese Wiki website, it is not hard. Like those original English named “Google Earth”, and Geography word “Amsterdam”, people can easily find its Chinese name which matched. Meanwhile, a Chinese pinyin word typed in English Wiki, we can still find its English word matched. Or in some Chinese word that can’t be explained enough clear, there is a hyperlink with its Chinese content. This leads Wikipedia to a more objective information storage.

At last, I want to talk about an interesting topic I found in a Chinese normal cyber community named “NGN”. Because of the language barrier in Wiki, some people discussed that “who is the most famous person of China in Wiki?” They tried their best to think of the most famous people in Chinese history and searched their names in different language Wikis in order to find how many different language introduction they have, so they could know who has the largest popularity all over the world.


(1) Hyunwoo Park, Language Difference in Virtual Communities in Cyberspace:

Blogosphere, Wikis and Social Network Sites,University of California, Berkeley

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