NEF - Le Livre 010101 de Marie Lebert - Mutilingualism on the Web

Multilingualism on the Web (1999)
2. Multilingualism

2.1. The Web: First English, Then Multilingual
2.2. A Non-English Language: The Example of French
2.3. Diversity of Languages: The Situation in Europe

2.1. The Web: First English, Then Multilingual

In the beginning, the Internet was nearly 100% English, which can be easily explained because it was created in the United States as a network set up by the Pentagon (in 1969) before spreading to US governmental agencies and to universities. After the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989-90 by Tim Berners-Lee at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), in Geneva, Switzerland, and the distribution of the first browser Mosaic (the ancestor of Netscape) from November 1993 onwards, the Web too began to spread -- first in the US thanks to considerable investments made by the government, then around North America, and then to the rest of the world.

The fact that there are many more Internet surfers in the US and Canada than in any other country is due to different factors -- these countries are among the leaders in the latest computing and communication technologies, and hardware and software, as well as local phone communications, are much cheaper there than in the rest of the world.

In Hugues Henry's article, La francophonie en quête d'identité sur le Web, published by the cybermagazine Multimédium, Jean-Pierre Cloutier, author of Chroniques de Cybérie, a weekly cybermagazine widely read in the French-speaking Internet community, explains:

"In Quebec I am spending about 120 hours per month on-line. My Internet access is $30 [Canadian]; if I add my all-inclusive phone bill which is about $40 (with various optional services), the total cost of my connection is $70 per month. I leave you to guess what the price would be in France, in Belgium or in Switzerland, where the local communications are billed by the minute, for the same number of hours on-line."

It follows that Belgian, French or Swiss surfers spend much less time on the Web than they would like, or choose to surf at night to cut somehow their expenses.

In 1997, Babel -- a joint initiative from Alis Technologies and the Internet Society, ran the first major study of the actual distribution of languages on the Internet. The results are published in the Web Languages Hit Parade, dated June 1997, and the languages, listed in order of usage, are: English 82.3%, German 4.0%, Japanese 1.6%, French 1.5%, Spanish 1.1%, Swedish 1.1%, and Italian 1.0%.

In Web embraces language translation, an article published in ZDNN (ZD Network News) of July 21, 1998, Martha L. Stone explained:

"This year, the number of new non-English websites is expected to outpace the growth of new sites in English, as the cyber world truly becomes a 'World Wide Web.' [...] According to Global Reach, the fastest growing groups of Web newbies are non-English-speaking: Spanish, 22.4 percent; Japanese, 12.3 percent; German, 14 percent; and French, 10 percent. An estimated 55.7 million people access the Web whose native language is not English. [...] Only 6 percent of the world population speaks English as a native language (16 percent speak Spanish), while about 80 percent of all web pages are in English."

According to Global Reach, 92% of the world does not speak English. As the Web quickly spreads worldwide, more and more operators of English-language sites which are concerned by the internationalization of the Web recognize that, although English may be the main international language for exchanges of all kinds, not everyone in the world reads English.

Since December 1997 any Internet surfer can use the AltaVista Translation service, which translates English web pages (up to three pages at the same time) into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, and vice versa. The Internet surfer can also buy and use Web translation software. In both cases he will get a usable but imperfect machine-translated result which may be very helpful, but will never have the same quality as a translation prepared by a human translator with special knowledge of the subject and the contents of the site.

The increase in multilingual sites will make it possible to include more diverse languages on the Internet. And more free translation software will improve communication among everyone in the international Internet community.

To reach as large an audience as possible, the solution is to create bilingual, trilingual, multilingual sites. The website of the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir gives a presentation of the newspaper in six languages: French, English, Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. The French Club des poètes (Club of Poets), a French site dedicated to poetry, presents its site in English, Spanish and Portuguese. E-Mail-Planet, a free e-mail address provider, provides a menu in six languages (English, Finnish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish).

Robert Ware is the creator of OneLook Dictionaries, a fast finder for 2,058,544 words in 425 dictionaries in various fields: business, computer/Internet; medical; miscellaneous; religion; science; sports; technology; general; and slang. In his e-mail to me of September 2, 1998, he wrote:

"An interesting thing happened earlier in the history of the Internet and I think I learned something from it.

In 1994, I was working for a college and trying to install a software package on a particular type of computer. I located a person who was working on the same problem and we began exchanging e-mail. Suddenly, it hit me... the software was written only 30 miles away but I was getting help from a person half way around the world. Distance and geography no longer mattered!

OK, this is great! But what is it leading to? I am only able to communicate in English but, fortunately, the other person could use English as well as German which was his mother tongue. The Internet has removed one barrier (distance) but with that comes the barrier of language.

It seems that the Internet is moving people in two quite different directions at the same time. The Internet (initially based on English) is connecting people all around the world. This is further promoting a common language for people to use for communication. But it is also creating contact between people of different languages and creates a greater interest in multilingualism. A common language is great but in no way replaces this need.

So the Internet promotes both a common language AND multilingualism. The good news is that it helps provide solutions. The increased interest and need is creating incentives for people around the world to create improved language courses and other assistance and the Internet is providing fast and inexpensive opportunities to make them available."

2.2. A Non-English Language: The Example of French

Let us take French as an example of a non-English language.

Since 1996 the number of sites in French has increased significantly. There were about 20,000 sites in French in mid-1997, and more of a third of them were from Quebec. Since the beginning of 1998 we can see a larger number of new French websites, particularly in the field of electronic commerce. "For two years I have being waiting for France to wake up. Today I'll not complain about it," Louise Beaudouin, the Minister of Culture and Communications in Quebec, declared on February 10, 1998, when interviewed by the daily cybermagazine Multimédium.

Until early 1998, Quebec and its 6 million inhabitants had more websites than France did with its 60 million inhabitants. In her interview, Louise Beaudouin gave two reasons for France's lagging behind Quebec -- the first is the high cost of phone service, and the second is the widespread use of the Minitel for commercial transactions.

Developed 15 years ago by France Télécom, the French state telephone company, the Minitel is a terminal which gives access to the French videotex network, as well as facilitating electronic commerce transactions. As this very handy tool has been in use for years, it slowed down the expansion of French electronic commerce on the Internet. Little by little, many of the French companies or organizations with Minitel servers are creating websites, which are cheaper to consult, easier to use because of hypertext links, and more pleasing to the eye because of colors, graphics and multimedia tools.

French is not only spoken in France, Quebec, and parts of Belgium and Switzerland, it is the official language of 49 states (particularly in Africa) and is spoken worldwide by 500 million people. Created in 1970 with 21 French-speaking states, the Agence de la francophonie (Agency of Francophone Countries) counts 47 members today. Its goal is to be an instrument of multilateral cooperation to create a community representing the French-speaking countries at the international level.

Following the decisions of the Heads of States and Governments of French-speaking Countries during their meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, in November 1997, the Fonds francophone des inforoutes (Francophone Fund for Information Highways) was established on June 3, 1998. Thirteen Francophone states and governments participated: the Belgian-French Community, Benin, Cameroon, Canada, Canada-New Brunswick, Canada-Quebec, Côte d'Ivoire, France, Gabon, Lebanon, Monaco, Senegal, and Switzerland.

This Fund's mission had been outlined six months earlier, according to several directives given by the Conférence des ministres chargés des inforoutes (Conference of Ministers in Charge of the Information Highways) held in Montreal, Quebec, in May 1997. It supported: democratization of the access to information highways; development of education, training and research; reinforcement of content creation and circulation; promotion of economic and social development; setting up of a Francophone awareness service; awareness-raising of young people, producers and investors; setting up of a concerted Francophone presence within the international authorities in charge of the development of information highways. The Fund's activities are particularly aimed at financing multilateral projects which would strengthen partnerships between North and South.

French is not only the language of 49 countries and 500 million inhabitants in the world, it is also the second international language used in international organizations. Despite the real and alleged pressure of the English-speaking community, French-speaking people insist on their language being given a fair position in the world, and receiving the same consideration given to other main languages of communication, such as English, Arabic, Chinese or Spanish. Just as for any other non-English language-based culture, the French wish to stand up for their own language as well as for multilingualism and the diversity of people and culture.

At present it is important for any language to be represented through websites in its own language, with the possibility for Internet surfers to study it in a dynamic way through self-taught programs, language dictionaries, or linguistic databases. For example, in France, the Institut national de la langue française (INaLF) (National Institute of the French Language) created its site in December 1997 to present its research programs on the French language, particularly its lexicon. The INaLF's constantly expanded and renewed data, processed by specific and original computing systems, deal with all the aspects of the French language: literary discourse (14th-20th centuries), standard language (written and spoken), scientific and technical language (terminologies), and regional languages.

In her e-mail response of June 8, 1998, Christiane Jadelot, an engineer at INaLF-Nancy, France, explained:

"At the request of Robert Martin, the Head of INaLF, our first pages were posted on the Internet by mid-1996. I participated in the creation of these web pages with tools that cannot be compared to the ones we have nowadays. I was working with tools on UNIX, which were not very easy to use. At this time, we had little experience in this field, and the pages were very wordy. But the managing team was thinking it was urgent for us to be known through the Internet, a tool many enterprises were already using to promote their products. As we are a Department of Research and Services (Unité de recherche et de service), we have to find clients for our computer products, the best known being the textual database FRANTEXT. I think FRANTEXT was already on the Internet [since early 1995], and there was also a prototype of the volume 14 of the TLF [Trésor de la langue française (Treasure of the French Language), by Jean Nicot, 1606]. Therefore it was necessary for INaLF activities to be known by this means. It corresponded to a general need."

Every non-English language community is working for its language to be represented on the Web and for the international Internet to be multilingual. As an example, a non-profit organization created by the Government of Quebec, the Centre d'expertise et de veille Inforoutes et Langues (CEVEIL) (Centre of Expertise and Awareness for Information Highways and Languages) is setting up, in a more specifically French-oriented approach, an expertise network and some awareness-raising activities on the language problems of information highways.

Guy Bertrand, scientific director of CEVEIL, and Cynthia Delisle, consultant, answered my questions in their e-mail of August 23, 1998.

ML: "How do you see multilingualism on the Web?"

CEVEIL: "Multilingualism on the Internet is the logical and natural consequence of the diversity of human populations. Because the Web has first been developed and used in the United States, it is not really surprising that this medium began by being essentially Anglophone (and still is at present). However this situation is beginning to change and this movement will go on expanding, both because most of the new network users will not have English as a mother tongue and because the [non-English] communities already present on the Web will no longer accept the hegemony of the English language and will want to use the Internet in their own language, at least partially.

We can plan that, in several years, we'll have a situation similar to the one in publishing regarding the representation of different languages. This means than only a small number of languages will be in use (compared to the several thousands which exist). In this perspective, we believe that the Web -- among other parties -- should seek to further support minority cultures and languages, particularly for dispersed communities.

Finally, the arrival on the Internet of languages other than English, while requiring true readjustments and providing undeniable enrichment, points out the need for linguistic processing tools capable of effectively managing this situation. These will emerge as the result of research studies and awareness activities in areas such as machine translation, standardization, information location, automatic condensation (summaries), etc."

ML: "What did the use of the Internet bring to the life of CEVEIL?"

CEVEIL: "Let us first mention that the existence of the Web is one of the grounds of existence of CEVEIL, as we concentrate our activities mainly around the set of themes of the language use and processing on the Internet.

Moreover the Web is our main field for gathering information on the set of themes we are concerned with. Among others, we regularly and frequently watch the sites circulating daily and/or weekly news. At this level, we can say without hesitation that we use the Internet more than the other available written resources to carry out our activities.

Otherwise we prolifically use electronic mail to maintain relations with our contributors in order to obtain information and realize some projects. CEVEIL is a 'network structure' which would survive with difficulty without the Internet to connect together all the people who are implicated.

Finally it is useful to point out that the Web is also our most important tool for distributing our products to our target clients: sending of electronic news reports to our subscribers, creation of an electronic periodical, information and document distribution via our website, etc."

ML: "How does CEVEIL see the future of Internet-related activities as regards languages?"

CEVEIL: "The Internet is here to stay. The arrival of languages other than English to this medium also is irreversible. Therefore it is necessary to take these new facts into consideration from an economic, social, political, cultural, etc., point of view. Sectors such as advertising, vocational training, work in groups or within networks and knowledge management, will consequently have to evolve. As we mentioned above, it brings us back to the necessary development of really effective technologies and tools which will further exchanges in a really multilingual global village..."

2.3. Diversity of Languages: The Situation in Europe

Henri Slettenhaar, professor at the Webster University, Geneva, Switzerland, is a trilingual European. He is Dutch, he teaches computer science in English, and he speaks French too because he lives in France. He answered my questions in his e-mail of December 21, 1998.

ML: "How do you see multilingualism on the Internet?"

HS: "I see multilingualism as a very important issue. Local communities which are on the Web should use the local language first and foremost for their information. If they want to be able to present their information to the world community as well, their information should be in English as well. I see a real need for bilingual websites."

ML: "How do you see the future of Internet-related activities as regards languages?"

HS: "As far as languages are concerned, I am delighted that there are so many offerings in the original languages now. I much prefer to read the original with difficulty than to get a bad translation."

According to Global Reach, only 15% of Europe's half a billion population speaks English as a first language, and only 28% speaks English at all. A recent study showed that only 32% of Web surfers on the European continent consult the Web in English.

Founder of Euro-Marketing Associates (including Global Reach), Bill Dunlap, who champions European e-commerce among his fellow American compatriates, explained in his e-mail of December 12, 1998 that, contrary to North America, "in Europe [...], the countries are small enough so that an international perspective has been necessary for centuries."

There are many European organizations dealing with multilingualism, such as the European Language Resources Association (ELRA), the European Network in Language and Speech (ELSNET) and the Multilingual Information Society (MLIS) Programme of the European Union.

The European Language Resources Association (ELRA) was established as a non-profit organization in Luxembourg in February 1995. Its overall goal is to provide a centralized organization for the validation, management, and distribution of speech, text, and terminology resources and tools, and to promote their use within the European telematics RTD (research and technological development) community. Its website is bilingual English-French.

The European Network in Language and Speech (ELSNET) has over a hundred European academic and industrial institutions as members. The long-term technological goal which unites the participants of ELSNET is to build multilingual speech and NL (natural language) systems with unrestricted coverage of both spoken and written language.

In his e-mail of September 23, 1998, Steven Krauwer, ELSNET coordinator, explained:

"-- as a European citizen I think that multilingualism on the Web is absolutely essential, as in the long run I don't think that it is a healthy situation when only those who have a reasonable command of English can fully exploit the benefits of the Web;

-- as a researcher (specialized in machine translation) I see multilingualism as a major challenge: how can we ensure that all information on the Web is accessible to everybody, irrespective of language differences.

[The Internet] is my main instrument to communicate with others, and it is my main source of information. [...] I am sure I will spend the rest of my professional life trying to use IT to take away or at least lower the language barriers."

The Multilingual Information Society (MLIS) Programme of the European Union promotes the linguistic diversity of the EU in the information society. It intends to raise awareness of and stimulate provision of multilingual services, tolerable conditions for the language industries, reduced cost of information transfer among languages and contribute to the promotion of linguistic diversity. The home page of the website is in English, and documents are issues in many of all 11 EU official languages: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

Linguistic pluralism and diversity are everybody's business, as explained in a petition launched by the European Committee for the Respect of Cultures and Languages in Europe (ECRCLE) "for a humanist and multilingual Europe, rich of its cultural diversity".

"Linguistic pluralism and diversity are not obstacles to the free circulation of men, ideas, goods and services, as would like to suggest some objective allies, consciously or not, of the dominant language and culture. Indeed, standardization and hegemony are the obstacles to the free blossoming of individuals, societies and the information economy, the main source of tomorrow's jobs. On the contrary, the respect for languages is the last hope for Europe to get closer to the citizens, an objective always claimed and almost never put into practice. The Union must therefore give up privileging the language of one group."

The full text of the petition is available on the Web in the 11 European official languages of the European Union. The ECRCLE also asks the revisors of the Treaty of the European Union to include in the text of the treaty the respect of national cultures and languages. The proposals are concrete. In particular, the petition asks the governments in each country to "teach the youth at least two, and preferably three foreign European languages; encourage the national audiovisual and musical industries; and favour the diffusion of European works."

In Language Futures Europe, Paul Treanor collects links on language policy, multilingualism, global language structures, and the dominance of English. The site starts with a comment on the structures of language. It offers texts and essays, sections on EU policy, national policies, and research sites, and links on the emerging "monolingual movement" in the United States.

In his e-mail of August 18, 1998, Paul Treanor sent his comments on the questions I sent him:

"First, you speak of the Web in the singular. As you may have read, I think 'THE WEB' is a political, not a technological concept. A civilization is possible with extremely advanced computers, but no interconnection. The idea that there should be ONE WEB is derived from the liberal tradition of the single open, preferably global market.

I already suggested that the Internet should simply be broken up, and that Europe should cut the links with the US, and build a systematically incompatible net for Europe. As soon as you imagine the possibility of multiple nets, the language issues you list in your study are often irrelevant. Remember that 15 years ago, everyone thought that there would be one global TV station, CNN. Now there are French, German, Spanish global TV channels. So the answer to your question is that the 'one web' will split up anyway: probably into these 4 components:

1. an internal US/Canadian anglophone net, with many of the original characteristics;
2. separate national nets, with limited outside links;
3. a new global net specifically to link the nets of category 2;
4. possibly a specific EU net.

As you see, this structure parallels the existing geopolitical structure. All telecommunications infrastructure has followed similar patterns.

I think that it is not possible to approach the Web in the neutral apolitical way suggested by your study. Current EU policy pretends to be neutral in this way, but in fact is supporting the growth of English as a contact-language in EU communications policy."

Chapter 3: Language Resources
Table of Contents

Mutilingualism on the Web
Le Livre 010101: Home Page
NEF: Home Page

© 1999 Marie Lebert