The Languages of Digital Content

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
2 October, 2018
Editorial: 242
Fecha de publicación original: 21 noviembre, 2000

Those who don’t go for a swim, don’t drown in the sea

The European Union has a plan for arresting present US domination in the networked world which they hope to have up and running by March 2001. The so-called eContent programme of the Directorate General of the Information Society plans, in the first place, to make it easier for member countries to transcend their respective language barriers. In other words to convert content into local content in each country. This is no small challenge, as we said in the editorial “Not English, not Latin: EuroNet” 4/7/00. The technological capacity for operating in various languages simultaneously is a –rather expensive– part of the problem. The other, much more serious part is a cultural adaptation to this content in order to preserve diversity and resist homogenisation.

The European Commission has data that confirms a predictable tendency: the growth rate of the market in English in all commercial areas on the Net is beginning to slow down. Recent waves of new internauts on the Internet has reduced the number of people using English as though it were their own language. This is not just a sociological change. Demand for content in local languages has, logically, grown considerably over the last year. However, in contrast to the US, response to this demand through local initiatives has not managed to become a response at European level for despite its potential as a single market it would have to successfully overcome the barriers of multilingualism and cultural diversity.

With regard to this, DG Information Society studies highlight certain clear tendencies and weak points in the cultural and business world on the Internet in Europe. According to the “Global Reach” report, 50% of users on the Net come from countries where English is the native language. And the major growth rate is taking place in “non-English-speaking” countries (45% and 78% per year, respectively). In Europe there are 80 million web pages of a commercial nature (this category includes those related to education, entertainment, etc., as well as those that are strictly business based), but only 8.5 million contain local content (the majority just in English as well as their own languages). This situation goes directly against the findings of the best studies conducted into user behaviour on content webs: internauts spend twice as much time there if content is in their mother tongue, and the possibility of consuming what they offer triples).

On the other hand, digital content is only the raw material: in fact, it is a resource that can be reused as many times as languages and cultures demand. In the European context, and its areas of influence in many other countries (Latin America, French-speaking Africa, Brazil, etc.), this is an aspect of content value which has yet to be exploited. While digital content is not held back by its format and is becoming more and more mobile and personalised, it is not really able to transcend its native language barrier. The most it does is fall back on English in the hope of reaching the global networks. Its authors appear unable to get a clear vision of just how close the global is within a socio-cultural context which is much more familiar and immediate, despite the difficulties and complexities it is plagued by.

This is the challenge the Commission wants to take up with its new eContent programme, converting it, hopefully, into the cornerstone of its policies on the Information Society. After a series of emergency meetings over the last two months with numerous European companies and institutions, the Italian presidency, which ends its mandate on the last day of this millennium, has prepared a draft which will be ready for approval at the ministerial meeting on the 22 December. From then on, if everything goes according to plan, there will be three months in which to present proposals. It will be the acid test for the single market which has not yet taken up arms in the Information Society. In its favour are its long tradition in the field of publishing and content generation, a cultural and linguistic diversity not yet exploited in the transfer of digital markets and its proven experience in the localisation of published material in various languages. But it is not certain that this will be enough in a networked age.

The US has the largest, more or less monolingual, domestic market in the world and it makes enough profit to expand beyond its borders. The situation for European content producers is quite the opposite. In order to take advantage of an integrated European market they need a viable strategy to make this content “internally” local. The most interesting experiences so far have been where a long tradition already existed, such as the publishing industry, rather than in fields such as education or the sale of digital content with clear local value.

As the European Commission itself points out, the main barrier is cultural: perception of the European dimension has not really penetrated Information Society strategy. A strong US presence reduces efforts to localise content to translating it into English. And this is where the second obstacle arises: the cost of operating in various languages. In the third place, the labour market has not yet generated professionals capable of satisfying demands in this sector. The cultural adaptation of content to local demands requires a new batch of professionals able to apply new knowledge and use the wide range of new technological tools essential for sustaining this activity.

And, as though linguistic and cultural fragmentation were not difficult enough, in addition there are the price rates of telecommunications operators, copyright problems and privacy protection concerns. And, in a wider, but fundamental, context, the lack of concern (for want of a better expression) shown by the academic world for this key aspect of the Information Society. Research into what has become to be known as “the social Internet”, in contrast with that based on infrastructure and equipment (broad band, video, multimedia, etc.) is an unresolved matter at European universities. And it is from this research that many of the seminal ideas nourishing this process of making digital European content local within a global context, should come.

Translation: Bridget King