On the Net: Wikipedia: A Multilingual Treasure Trove

By LeLoup, Jean W.; Ponterio, Robert | Language, Learning & Technology, May 2006 | Go to article overview

On the Net: Wikipedia: A Multilingual Treasure Trove


LeLoup, Jean W., Ponterio, Robert, Language, Learning & Technology


INTRODUCTION

Encyclopedias are excellent sources of basic introductory information on historical and cultural topics for foreign language (FL) students. The articles in these reference works do not have the depth of more extensive works such as magazine articles, books, and even web sites addressing a topic, but such depth is generally not the best introduction to new concepts in a foreign language. Their brief overviews can serve as a better first exposure, quickly giving the student the main ideas that can later be filled in with more breadth and depth through additional reading as needed. In addition, the FL student will inevitably encounter many new concepts in the target language culture but have difficulty understanding the explanation, which is itself often full of additional new concepts and vocabulary. An electronic encyclopedia can present the advantage of hypertext links from these new expressions in one article to explanations and information in another article. This has always been a powerful feature of all encyclopedias dating at least back to Diderot's 18th century France, but the electronic format and hypertext makes jumping from one article to another much easier than flipping through pages.

Electronic encyclopedias have long been available for many of the languages that we teach, produced by software companies (e.g., Encarta) or by the same people who make paper encyclopedias. The Internet, with its revolution in our ability to exchange information quickly, has lead to a fundamental change in the way software and other kinds of information can be produced, modified and distributed. The open source revolution has given us what has become one of the most popular encyclopedias in the world, and it is currently active in 108 languages (including Klingon). Thirty-seven of these different language editions have more than 10,000 articles at the current time.

WIKIPEDIA

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page) is a highly successful, free, web-based, multilingual, open source encyclopedia. It is run by the non-profit Wikimedia foundation. Acording to co-founder Jimmy Wales in "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia", 8 March 2005, "Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language."

How does this work? As in most electronic encyclopedias, one can browse articles or search for topics. Words and expressions within any article that are explained elsewhere in the encyclopedia are formatted as hypertext links to those other articles. But Wikipedia is different in the way it is written. Articles in traditional encyclopedias are written by experts with credentials. In Wikipedia, anyone can edit an article.

Indeed, the Wikipedia slogan is "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit at will." The asumption is that after many individuals have contributed their edits, an article will improve over time through a sort of evolutionary process. A history of edits remains available so readers can decide for themselves if they agree with changes. A series of tabs at the top of an article provides access to the tools for discussing, exploring, and even editing the article.

The discussion tab is a place for users/readers to exchange ideas about the contents of the article. Under edit this page the reader can make corrections or additions. History gives the user access to previous versions of the article and includes explanations of the specific changes made and who made them. For a typical article, one finds many minor changes such as spelling corrections, stylistic changes, small factual corrections, but also some major changes, vandalism, and corrections reverting to a prior version of the article.

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