Foreign Culture with a Local Flavour (*)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
1 January, 2019
Editorial: 268
Fecha de publicación original: 22 mayo, 2001

We put our tongues where the tooth hurts the most

The Babel that is the Net, although it is not quite ten years old yet in its public dimension, has already generated a flood of philosophising, in books, essays, conferences and, occasionally, even official policy statements, dealing with the fate of languages –and cultures — in cyberspace. Discussion ranges from the fear that the local language will become suppressed by the global language, English, on the one hand, and on the other, the urgent need to defend cultural essence by actively promoting local language on the Net thereby, perhaps, even raising it to the category of a global language. Somewhere in between lies the murky grey area we actually inhabit: the reality of languages submitted to a rapid wash and spin dry as a result of the intense and intimate contact between them. We know this is happening, but have very little idea what the consequences will be. We don’t even have instruments to help us map out tendencies, though, on the other hand, this usually happens anyway, in questions related to language changes either on the Net or on the street. These tendencies are like gentle waves, but there is a strong undertow below the surface which is what will, in the end, shape the landscape.

In the case of the Internet we should never lose sight of the peculiarities of virtual spaces. For a start, they are based on an open architecture network which means we can all access everything, at the same time too. This has never been possible before, not even in much smaller community environments such as the home, for example. Moreover, we can see each other –negotiate encounters– in our respective languages, or in the global one. And, initially anyway, we are going to have more and more tools to strengthen their presence. The technological trends are clear: automatic simultaneous translation technology, though it might take a while to reach the market, is an inevitability. This will allow us to work in other languages without abandoning our own. Nevertheless, even if these translators already existed and were in use on a mass scale, they would still not guarantee the survival of local languages according to criteria currently in vogue on this subject.

For instance, although the vast majority of European webs are in two languages, the global and the local, their mutual visibility is extremely low. Some time ago, during a talk with Negroponte, director of MIT’s MediaLab, we were told that Internet penetration was greater in Scandinavian countries than in the US and that the same would shortly be true about Europe as a whole. Then I asked him to give me the electronic address of one Swedish page apart from the telecommunications operator’s. Just one. He said he couldn’t think of any just then. “Neither can I”, I replied, ” but would you like me to start reeling off US URL’s?”. The crux of the matter is not just language. Almost everyone looks across the Atlantic, to US Net resources and these are only found in the global language. The European Union has launched eContent in an attempt to counteract this tendency, the idea being that it will miraculously break down internal barriers between local languages by creating multilingual resources culturally adapted to different realities.

All this does not mean that the linguistic map in the global era will force us to preach bilingualism or multilingualism, however much these may constitute an evolutionary advantage (this has always been the case, with or without the Net). Nor that this linguistic flexibility will automatically guarantee the preservation (or degradation) of what are considered to be the cultural profiles of a particular society. The problem, as we all know, is much more complex than this. Amongst other things, language presence on the Internet, and therefore of the cultures they express, is related to economic, political and technological factors as well. Each one of these operates in a decision-making environment where considerable inertia is the order of the day. Some countries, the US in particular, thanks to their economic, political and technological power, don’t need public policies to promote their culture via language (although they might still do so). Something similar is true of Great Britain, although its political power far outweighs its economic or technological power. While, with other languages such as Spanish, French or German in particular, the specific order and weight of these factors is quite different again. Consequently, analysing global and local language on the basis of the same criteria and outlining their respective development on the Net over the next five years is a very complex business.

Does this then mean that the best attitude we can take is the “stand back, don’t interfere” one …. we’ll just see what happens? Obviously not. The evolution of local languages, apart from anything else, depends to a large extent on the volume of cultural, social, scientific, political or economic resources they express. This is the common basis for the participation of different societies in the knowledge economy. And it is here, for the moment, where the greatest inequality of local languages lies, in particular our own, no matter how impressive the figures might be (“There are 300 million Spanish speakers”, “Spanish is becoming more and more important in the US”, etc.). There is a whole range of decision-making related to how we adopt technology and incorporate its political consequences, and this will be crucial to the evolution of local languages. It is what I would call ATLAR, la Agenda Tecnológica y Política de las Lenguas Activas en la Red (The Technological and Political Agenda of Active Languages On the Net). Something which is only noticeable by its absence in our hemisphere.

We don’t have enough information systems based on our own perspectives of education, history, literature. architecture, cities, scientific research, political development or other knowledge areas developed over centuries (if one wants to find out more about Spanish anarchism, for instance, a movement crucial to the understanding of much cultural expression over the last decades, you really need to understand English because it is in this language that the best resources are to be found, more specifically in the US: This is also the case with the mountains of material available on the Spanish Civil War). So if the question is, “If we don’t do it, who will?” then we know where at least part of the answer lies, although it does not come from anything we could define as “defending our culture against the advancing global language”: If we don’t turn our language into a “global industry” or cultivate the language industry on the Net, then what do we mean when we talk about the disadvantages of local languages?

From this perspective, then, quantitative assessments of language tell us very little. While there might be 9 million web pages in Spanish on the Net as compared to 200 million in English (mysterious figures –no-one really knows where they come from), what we need is an analysis of what a particular language, Spanish in this case, actually does on the Internet. This cannot be done without taking a look into how networks are created and work, interconnected networks that multiply the effects of resources in local languages, instead of trying to catalogue a multitude of dispersed pages which do not even constitute a cultural tendency.

We could say, using the principle of the networks as a point of comparison, that languages are worth as much as the networks that contain them, multiplied by the square root of its nodes. And if local languages don’t take on the job of transmitting their own cultures, someone will do it for them in the sacred name of market interests. We have a long tradition of this. In Spain, for example, up until very recently, nobody had ever seen a Disney film in original version. All the films coming out of these studios were translated, including the songs. And the same was true for Central and Latin America. Did this mean that we had any control over the cultural vision these films transmitted? Of course not. Disney did, although they spoke to us in our own language, with all our accents and slang to boot.

How far away are we from this happening in all knowledge areas now? The fact that we still don’t know with any certainty what the relationship between oral and written languages will be like on the Net, not to mention the combination of both with audiovisual language, does not mean that, in the end, the “translation effect” will not work the other way: from English, as global language, towards local languages. What we will have then is millions of pages more in our languages but expressing the culture of you know who.

In order to measure cultural production in local languages, then, we will need to analyse online information systems, their origin and their field of activity, the destination of communication flows as well as their density and, above all, the range of digital agitation they are able to promote. Apart from this, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the argument about whether local languages will be able to resist the onslaught of the global language will not be fought only on political terrain. As I said in the previous editorial, we are on the brink of a series of technological decisions so fundamental that they may redefine the cultural world map as we have known it so far. It is this we will be taking a look at in the next editorial.

(*) Second editorial on local and global languages. The first of these, entitled “Three Languages” was published on 15/5/01.