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How the challenges of multilingual tweeting are being overcome

in Education and Training


The evolution of blogs from posts comparable to short essays in length to much shortened variations called microblogs has been positively adapted by web users. Microblogging services like Twitter have achieved widespread popularity with their use transcending most major language groups online. Twitter is rapidly implementing multilingual support to harness user generated content in foreign languages to appeal to the linguistically diverse web audience. However, with the post restrictions that limit text to 140 characters, some languages present a challenge for users due to their verbose linguistic structure.

Twitter’s 140 character limit is based upon the 160 character limit that was in place for text messages on mobile phones. The number was chosen by a German named Friedhelm Hillebrand who worked for German Telecom. In 1985, Friedhelm decided to count the number of characters in a large sample of sentences and he found that almost all of them clocked in fewer than 160 characters. This set the standard for text messaging and Twitter’s character limit is derived from this, it reserves 20 characters for the user’s address and leaves the rest for the tweet. For text messages, user inventiveness resulted in the creation of SMS language, which is now used on microblogs too.

Twitter users in English have furthered the evolution of a shortened form by making shorthand more widespread. As a global, many-to-many communication platform, new shorthand expressions have had the chance to spread and be adopted as a standard more quickly than a one-to-one or one-to-many communication method like SMS. Shorthand such as b/c for because and b4 for before already existed in text language but are now more widely known because of Twitter. A unique to Twitter trend has been the use of memes with a hashtag to encapsulate a concept or idea that has spread online. For instance, #fail is used to indicate disapproval or contempt and #ff, which stands for follow Friday, is a recommendation to follow users referenced in the message.

While English has had to be morphed into a shortened variation for communication tools where character limits are enforced, other languages are ideally suited for microblogs. Chinese, for instance, is a very concise language in terms of character length because single characters can represent whole words. Users tweeting in Chinese are able to convey messages of a few sentences long without having to exceed the maximum limit. Languages like Arabic and Korean are also well suited for use on Twitter as vowels can be omitted in these languages.

Twitter users who communicate in languages that are very verbose have also started to use shortened and informal abbreviated English to communicate. Text in languages like Spanish and Portuguese typically expands in length when translated from English. Native language speakers of these languages therefore have to find ways to convey their message in as few characters as possible. One such way has been to mix languages such as English into their tweets opting for the more concise of the two for particular expressions.

The continued expansion of language support on Twitter has been positively embraced by communities worldwide. Due to its mass appeal, language speakers have been brought together by a shared language and adapted their use of language to meet the needs of the platform and the community. Microblogging showcases not just how languages evolve but also how they can be preserved in an interconnected global community.

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