The Web learns to speak in tongues

The World Wide Web has been largely restricted to English-speakers and dominated by American culture. But all that is about to change. Milly Jenkins reports
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Surfeando el Web can be difficult if you don't speak English. So can navigation sur Internet. It's easy for us complacent English-speakers to forget that the World Wide Web is virtually useless to anyone who doesn't speak English. It has been suggested, rather sourly, that it should be renamed the Anglo-Saxon Web. With 85 per cent of all Web sites in English, it's not surprising that non-English speakers feel excluded.

But for how much longer? As Europe, Asia and South America gradually come online, the number of non-English sites is growing. Multilingual search engines have brought this about. In Europe, Alta Vista, Yahoo!, Excite and Lycos have all set up search engines and there are now 12 to 15 million European Internet users, up 20 per cent from early 1996. In Japan, Yahoo! has been almost entirely responsible for a sudden surge in the number of Internet users.

But luring non-English speakers on to the Web calls for more than just overcoming language barriers. Cultural differences are just as important. The French, as ever, are particularly incensed by what they see as the cultural imperialism of North America on the Net. President Chirac recently urged La Francophonie, an alliance of 49 French-speaking nations, to stop American culture, via the Internet, destroying the French language.

France's Terminology Commission has called for the Web to be renamed the toile. A hacker, they say, should be un pirate informatique. The battle is even being waged in court: a French campaign group recently tried - and failed - to sue an American university, with a campus in Metz, because its Web site was mostly in English.

"You know how French people are," sighs Denis Jamet, producer of Yahoo! France. "The government here likes to rule things." French Internet users, though, mostly ignore their leaders and continue to use American jargon. But there were cultural differences that needed to be taken into consideration in the setting up of Yahoo! France. The French, claims Jamet, are more serious than the Americans: "Users here are interested in news, culture and politics. There's less entertainment." Fashion, gastronomy and wine, seen as entertainment in America, are classed as culture, industry and agriculture in France.

"They're also a lot more suspicious about the Internet. They want it to be perfect, and all free. They complain a lot. Users in America are more happy. They want to have fun, surf and be in California, and that's it. "That's not how the French work. It's not their mood. But these are really European cultural differences. France, Germany and the UK are on the same side on this. It's us versus the US."

Alta Vista is the most heavily used engine in Europe, but a Swedish company, EuroSeek, is catching up fast. EuroSeek's president, Danny Froeberg, says the key is in understanding European culture and providing local content. Some 80 per cent of EuroSeek's 10 million indexed sites are European.

"We help people to find information that's relevant to them," he says. "It's not just an interface in their language."

But at the same time, Europeans are still interested in English language sites. "What annoys people is that they are excluded from good sites such as CNN and the BBC. Everyone forgets that Europe is twice the size of the US market," says Froeberg.

On the surface, Japan's seven million Internet users seem to be less irked by Americans. Hidetsugu Tonomura, producer of Yahoo! Japan, says that now that language barriers are being lifted, users do not mind that American culture dominates. And they have been happy to adopt American jargon - WWW, home page and HTML are pronounced as in English, with the help of katakana, their foreign-word alphabet. But scratch the surface and you will find dissenters. Japanese academics have warned that the wholesale acceptance of American Internet culture will eventually erode Japanese culture and traditions.

Even within America there is a movement to make the Internet more diverse, and less all-American. In New York, non-English sites - in Russian, Italian, Chinese and Korean - have been mushrooming. Like other non-Americans, these minorities often feel lost on the Internet. Some are developing their own hybrid language, as a substitute for Silicon Valley jargon.

Yolanda Rivas, a PhD student at the University of Texas, has set up a CyberSpanglish page, listing the words being used by the Spanish-American Internet community - "I am e-mailing" becomes "estoy emaileando", and the WWW "wa-wa-wa" or even "dobliu-dobliu-dobliu".

Rivas says she has been accused of being a language terrorist, but she feels that CyberSpanglish is simply about making non-English speakers feel more comfortable on the Net. "English is already the accepted language of the Net," she says. "But that convention is not written in stone."

Is it possible, then, that English could be superseded by another language as the lingua franca of the Net? A Chinese government official recently predicted that by 2020 most Internet users would be Chinese speakers. Many shrug their shoulders at this - English, they say, will become more, not less, important as the international language of business and the Internet.

Professor Kenneth Keniston, of MIT, looks at the future of language on the Net in a working paper on software and cultural localisation. He points out that only 8 per cent of the world's population speaks English, and that that is unlikely to grow to 100 per cent.

"The other unlikely extreme," he says, "is that every one of the world's thousands of vernaculars will become the basis for computer use." He paints a mind-blowing picture of what that may mean. Take India, for example, where there are 18 officially recognised languages and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. Could all of them be represented on the Net? Of course, all this is hypothetical - 50 per cent of the world's population has never even made a telephone call, let alone used a modem.

A more realistic prediction is that in the future there will be no lingua franca of the Net. Instead, there will be hundreds (not thousands) of languages, dominant to various degrees. Keniston says that whatever happens, localising the Internet to cater for different languages will be important.

This is already happening in Europe, where more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken. EuroSeek, which also sees localisation as the future, is planning to include every European language with more than 1 million speakers. It already caters for Catalan, Breton, Welsh and, generously, Scottish Gaelic.

As more and more languages come online, how will lazy English speakers cope? We may become heavily dependent on translation software, such as Globalink's Web Translator, which translates pages as you arrive at them. Relatively quick, it feels wonderful to read French, German and Spanish sites at the click of a mouse. Accurate it is not, although the mistranslations are often charming - "pools of discussion", rather than "discussion groups", for example.

The world market for translation products is already huge - worth $200m in 1995 and predicted to grow to $1.5bn by 2000. As English becomes less and less dominant on the Web, these products are going to be crucial.