Google and even less-prominent search engines are among the most important inventions of all time.
At your fingertips – on your smartphone or your computer screen – you can search for and find almost every bit of human knowledge on every conceivable subject.
But what happens when users search for information in their own language? As access to the Internet increases globally, it has the potential to alleviate social inequalities, for example, by increasing access to useful scientific information. But inequalities remain with us within and among nations of the world, partly due to differences in language proficiency.
The Internet is a major source of information about science and technology in developed countries. As of 2018, 57% of American adults cite the Internet as their primary source of such information, and 70% say they would go online to find information about a specific scientific and technological issue. Similarly, in Israel, 77% of adults who mentioned that they were interested in least one scientific or technological field cited search engines as a primary source of such information.
Nur and Talia are high school students who live in the same apartment complex in Haifa, Israel. Nur is a native Arabic speaker who is proficient in Hebrew and English, and Talia is bilingual in Hebrew and English. One day, they read a newspaper article about technological food innovations, such as plant-based meat alternatives. They go online to learn more about the science behind these inventions, but a quick search reveals that popular science content on this topic is mostly available in English, whereas the top search results in Hebrew and Arabic typically offer advertisements, recipes, and technical information for professionals. As they run more searches, they get a stronger impression that the usefulness of the results differs depending on the language they search in.
This fictional vignette reflects a broader issue: Science literacy is considered to benefit the health and well-being of individuals, communities and society.
For example, when searching for a scientific term, do search engines provide English-, Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students with the same level of access to quality scientific information? This question is addressed by a new study, conducted at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and recently published in the journal Public Understanding of Science under the title “Science, Maddá [Hebrew] and ‘Ilm [Arabic[: The language divide in scientific information available to Internet users.”
The Internet has potential to alleviate inequality in general and specifically with respect to science literacy, the authors wrote. “Nevertheless, digital divides persist in online access and use, as well as in subsequent social outcomes. Among these, the ‘language divide’ partly determines how successful users are in their Internet use depending on their proficiency in languages, and especially in English. To examine whether the quality of online scientific information varies between languages when conducting searches from the same country, we compared online search results regarding scientific terms in English, Hebrew and Arabic.”
The study found that search results for terms in English are of better quality than those provided for equivalent terms in Hebrew and Arabic. In addition, most of the differences among the languages dealt with pedagogical aspects of quality – that is, the extent to which the content was geared towards young users rather than the scientific aspects such as the accuracy of the content.
Some of the largest differences among the languages were found for terms related to nutrition and metabolism, such as “carbohydrate,” “protein,” “enzyme” and “metabolism.”
These findings are based on the top Google Search results presented to users in Israel for 30 basic scientific terms in three languages – Hebrew, Arabic and English. The terms pertained to three scientific domains –biology, chemistry and physics. Each search result’’ overall quality was determined using scientific criteria, such as content accuracy, the author’s authority and the use of sources; pedagogical criteria such as references to everyday life and the quality of audiovisual materials; and criteria specific to online content, such as recency and interactivity.
Modern Hebrew is the official language of Israel and 49% of its population over 20 years old speak it natively/ Most of the rest of the population is proficient in Hebrew; it has approximately 4.5 million native speakers and nine million total speakers. Most native Hebrew speakers are Jewish citizens of Israel.
By contrast, Arabic has semi-official status in Israel with a large minority of native speakers (18% of the population over 20 years old and 21% of the entire population. Thus, it has approximately 1.9 million native speakers in Israel. While Arabic is a minority language in Israel, it is an official language in 27 other countries and is spoken by roughly 274 million people worldwide, making it one of most widely spoken languages in the world. Nevertheless, the Arabic language is under-represented on the Internet. Although 5.2% of Internet users are Arabic speakers, only approximately one percent of Internet websites are in Arabic, a proportion that is only about twice as large as that of Hebrew websites By comparison, the share of websites in English on the Internet is 60.5%.
The under-representation of Arabic can be partly explained by the fact that Arab countries have been relatively late adopters of the Internet. Rates of Internet usage still vary considerably between these countries, as over 90% of the population uses the Internet in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, compared with 34% in Syria and 31% in Sudan. Overall, 47% of individuals in Arab states use the Internet. By comparison, Israel has an 82% Internet usage rate.
According to Kawther Zoubi, who conducted the study as part of her masters’ thesis in the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, “these findings help us understand the digital divide and the social factors that affect our ability to develop science literacy. Our understanding of science depends on the environment we live in and the extent to which we have access to quality scientific information. This depends on our proficiency in different languages.”
Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari of the faculty who oversaw the study added that “the scientific and educational communities must act to mitigate the digital divide. We all have the right to access quality scientific information in our language.”