Twitter and the Tower of Babel

By Theresa Mallinson 29 August 2011

Users can now access Twitter in 12 different languages, and there's some competition among linguistic communities as to whom are the biggest Tweeters. But when it comes to micro-blogging, the Chinese are catching up fast, with a platform all of their own called Weibo. By THERESA MALLINSON.

On 21 March 2006, Jack Dorsey famously sent the first Tweet ever: “just setting up my twttr”. It was, you will have noticed, in English – or an approximation thereof. However, since then, the service has expanded far beyond its monolingual beginnings: you can now access Twitter in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish.

Users are currently working on Malay, Filipino, Hindi, simplified Chinese, and traditional Chinese versions at Twitter’s crowd-sourced Translation Centre, with more languages to be added soon. Of course, this doesn’t mean users aren’t able to tweet in a multitude of other languages – just that these aren’t fully supported, yet.

Spanish-speaking Tweeters were pretty proud recently when the Twitter en español [@twitter_es] account surpassed the original English Twitter [@twitter] account in number of followers. On Sunday afternoon, @twitter had 5,944,024 followers, and @twitter_es 6,430,313.

These numbers, however, don’t make it clear which languages are used most on Twitter. A study in February last year found that 50% of all Tweets were in English, and only 4% in Spanish. But the English-language tweets were down from 67% in the first half of 2009, and it’s a safe bet that they’ve continued to fall since then. 

As Twitter continues to expand its language base, the real question is when its Chinese versions will be ready – and whether it’ll be able to lure users away from the Far East knock-off, Weibo. While the original micro-blogging site has more than 200 million accounts, Weibo, which launched only two years ago, has more than 140 million. DM



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