Online Searching in a Foreign Language

In this Google funded research project in collaboration with my advisor Dr Anita Komlodi at UMBC, I was interested in exploring the search behavior and challenges of non-native speakers of English when searching in English language with a strong disparity exists between the language distribution of Web content and the representation of speakers of different languages among Web users. In particular, I examined the search behaviors of Arab speakers when searching online in English and measure the differences when searching in Arabic vs. in English.  

Problem Statement

The Internet is a significant source of information, however, the majority of this information is in English while many searchers’ native language is not English. In particular, Arabs represent a high proportion of overall web users, with approximately 135 million online [1]. Despite this large number, less than one percent of Web sources are available in Arabic [2]. Consequently, Arab users often search in English. The purpose of this study is to explore of the search behaviors of Arab speakers when searching online in English. 


In this research, I used qualitative methods including diary studies, focus groups, and interviews.  Participants were asked to record searches in diaries and recount them in interviews. A different group of participants was interviewed in two focus groups. Participants for both the diary study and the focus groups were students at the English Language Institute (ELI) of a US University and native Arabic speakers.


Search Topic Drives Language Selection:

Participants reported that their decision to use either English or Arabic is determined by the type of information they are seeking. For example, when searching for information related to Middle Eastern politics or religion, participants indicated that they searched in Arabic. One participant reported: “I will never look at religious matters in English” (Participant 1). Another participant commented: “When I would like to know about situation and news in Middle East, particularly Libya, Arabic is the more ideal language to access this kind of information” (Participant 2). The decision to search for these topics in Arabic was influenced by both the availability of content and cultural interpretation of these topics

Searching as a Cultural Expression 

Belonging to a particular cultural group plays an important role in searching for and finding information on the Web (Chu et al., 2015). The majority of participants reported that when searching for information they prefer to select sources recommended by their fellow countrymen. One focus group participant indicated, “When I would like to move to or visit a different state in United States, I would look for information that is posted by other Saudis. I know we understand each other and share the same culture. I will not look for what Americans say or think about a certain place” (Participant 5). Similarly, another focus group participant commented, “Not because we only struggle using English language, but we prefer knowing what my society would say about a certain topic.” (Participant 6)


Foreign language searchers face challenges of creating queries where both vocabulary and grammar present challenges. These queries are often poor tools to navigate an unfamiliar information space. Users naturally turn to searching in their native language or finding their own cultural group to facilitate navigation in this information space. 


Early version of the results can be found in this presentation (slides). The results of this research were presented at iConference  2016 and the paper can be found (here).

iConference poster


  1. Top Ten Internet Languages – World Internet Statistics. (2013). Retrieved from
  2. Chu, P., Komlodi, A., & Rozsa, G. (2015) Online Search in English as a Non-native Language. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. St. Louis, MO, November 6-10, 2015.

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