Not English, not Latin: EuroNet

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 July, 2018
Editorial: 222
Fecha de publicación original: 4 julio, 2000

Things are all in a muddle: the nettles mixed with the roses

Plans to further expand the EU to include Eastern European countries will create a political, economic and social space where there will be 22 languages spoken. How will this affect the development of the Internet on a European scale? Will we be able to see each other through the Net? Will we be able to find a way of communicating on a regional and local scale or, as is the case now, will relationships be easier on a global level? Up until now, both in and outside the Net the common language in Europe has been English. Nevertheless, in many countries, as more people become connected and electronic commerce increases, publication of content in local languages is becoming more and more important. The European Union recognises that the success of the Information Society on the continent depends to a large extent on this linguistic diversity being expressed, one way or the other, through the Net.

The European Commission invited a dozen companies to Paris last week –amongst them — to discuss the question of creating pan-European˛ content. Interlocutors covered a wide range of content production from Reuters and Havas to or Europeonline, suppliers for linguistic services such as Berlitz or Softissimo, advertising companies such as 24/7Europe, as well as experts from the Commission itself and consulting companies like Equipe y Electronic Publishing Services (EPS). The Commission recognises that it is facing a dilemma for which there is no easy solution, particularly at this moment of accelerated growth in Internet services all over the content. On the one hand, many companies, understandably, see the global˛ as more productive than the European. On the other, it is difficult to know which businesses and activities are translatable˛ to other countries, for while they share a common political space, cultural diversity is undeniable.

The spread of English as the lengua franca˛ –calling it łthe Latin of the Middle Ages, is a little exaggerated I think– is indisputable at the moment. Chirac’s proposal to make the teaching of three languages compulsory all over the continent is a recognition of this fact, as well as expressing the fear that French and German will become less important in European transactions. Curiously enough, this April the Eurobarometer showed that the most useful languages –apart from one’s own– were, in descending order, English, French, German and Spanish. However, in language teaching, Spanish came third (38%), way ahead of German (28%). And, despite being systematically neglected within the European Union it is the language, together with English, with the greatest potential growth rate due to the ever-increasing presence of Latin America and Hispanic communities in the US on the Net.

Nevertheless, one thing is the use of English as the language of exchange, negotiation and daily communication, the other is what languages people want their content in on the Net. As more and more people become connected so will the demand for content in their own languages. It is not easy to read relatively complex material and interact in another language on the Net, especially if one has to write in that language in order to obtain results. It is likely, that as social relationships on the Net and in the business world get more complex they will only represent one layer of a multiplicity of other activities –such as education, health, citizen networks, etc.–, and consequently first languages will begin to emerge as the natural territory for virtual interaction. Putting one’s trust entirely in English means ignoring the fact that its predominance is already becoming a more and more serious barrier to operating on the Internet, even more so than digital illiteracy (a lack of training in the use of machines and networks).

The Scandinavian countries where English is most widely used on the continent (100% of all secondary students in Sweden and Finland can speak it), and where the figures for the connected population are the highest in Europe (even more than in the US), are hardly visible to the rest of the EU on the Net. And the same could be said of the other member countries. The vast majority of online services are, in one way or the other, directed towards the US, although they might be designed with an undeniably local strategy. In other words, we all see more about what is going on in the Net in Oregon and California than in Stockholm or Copenhagen, despite the fact that English is used as the common denominator.

The value of English, as we know only too well already, is different for different people. Its potential goes up several notches when it is filtered through US media and culture. Its communicative value becomes secondary when it is adopted by other countries as their own. But, when we go deep down into the Net, where there are millions of people, tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, right down into the middle of that cultural melting pot where the soup is becoming more and more diverse and spicy, things are dramatically different. The relationship between English and the local language for expressing daily online services, for information, business or knowledge, grates and impedes the circulation of this content in a global context.

The existence of a pan-European space does not necessarily correspond to the emergence of a virtual market of pan-European content. The importance of local audiences is a determining factor and imposes its differences. There are products that are not equally useful for everyone. A web page on wine in Spain is not the same in Germany, Denmark or Greece. Or a page on antiques, or even sport. Language localises, creates its own markets and establishes its own means of distribution. In other words, it is a crucial factor in business design. Europe has not yet been able to overcome this obstacle on the Internet. The difficulties of creating content in different languages obfuscates the development of the Information Society itself. In fact, we don’t even know what we are losing out on.

The solution should come, in the first place, from automatic translation systems, which make it possible to publish in several languages simultaneously and which, at the same time, represent a competitive and comparative advantage for European companies. But this is just the first step, and, for the moment anyway, not the most important. As the debate in Paris showed, content companies and the Commission itself should follow a series of guidelines to deal with the question of local content creation in a multi-linguistic space. This is a short summary of them:

• Decide what the business is first and then decide on the language,
• Define the cultural dimension of products and translate only what is necessary into other languages,
• Include automatic translation as part of the editing process,
• Develop multi-purpose information via various means of distribution (Internet, Digital TV, WAP, personal digital assistants, etc.),
• Up date information in all the languages used,
• Operate in local currencies until the Euro arrives
• If content is published in other languages, develop services in these languages,
• Agree on standardisation processes within a vast linguistic range: patronymics, toponyms, medical and scientific terms, etc.

The European Commission is sponsoring a number of studies to establish frameworks for content companies. One of these is eContent Localisation in Europe (making electronic content local in Europe), being drawn up by EPS and Equipe. This work is backed by the MLIS programme, developed by the General Management of the Information Society and its objective is to promote multi-lingualism on the Net. According to European Commission workers, the Paris meeting will be followed by others in order to further explore strategies in this area, so fundamental for the development of the Net on a European level.

Translation: Bridget King