Thai language and under-representation online

The snippet below from an excellent Memeburn article covering the impact of the internet caught my eye:

Today there are only about 1.8-billion Internet users, representing roughly 25% of the world’s population. Much of the world that they access online is in English, and yet we know that the vast majority of the world’s population is not English speaking. For example, while there are 300-million Arabic speakers in the world, Arabic content represents less than 1% of content on the web; same thing for Thai — despite the fact that Thailand is the 21st largest country in the world.

Though comparing the language that principally serves a country with 65 million population to Arabic is stretching it somewhat, language is a significant issue for Thailand and the internet.

With many popular services and websites operating in English and, on occasion, supporting other romanicised scripts, Thai internet users with limited or no knowledge of English are at a sizeable disadvantage. So much so that a genre of internet guidebooks flourishes in country, as blogged a while back.

Tha-language support can make a huge different to success in the country, as the example of Facebook shows. Before introducing support for Thai in January 2009, the social network had little more than 200,000 members.

By January 2010, a year later, the number had increased ten fold to 2 million while today Thailand’s Facebook membership is close to 5 million.

While social gaming played a big part in luring Thais to Facebook, support for Thai language has been a major in factor in retaining interest, given that rival Hi5 had previously been the only social network in Thai – a USP which once made it the nation’s number one social network.

Language isn’t just affecting consumers however, business opportunities are also being missed out. The internet allows many companies to outsource their work to cheaper, skilled labour, with Asia a popular choice. Thailand has the skills and technology but is playing second to regional neighbours with higher English fluency rates – like the Philippines and Indonesia – who are more attractive outsourcing destinations.

So the answer to the initial issue is two-fold.

Yes, an increase in Thai content and support for the language would help open resources to those with limited English…however, in the long run, the Thai government would do well to focus on growing English literacy and fluency as the potential for outsourced jobs and opportunities through the internet will only grow. There is potential to use other languages, notably Chinese given Thailand proximity to China and its potential (alongside other Asian nations) for outsourced work.

Though given the Thai government’s belief that the internet, and social media in particular, is ‘hurting’ the Thai language, it may see things differently.