pedro lopez casuso on 3 Nov 2000 09:59:10 -0000

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[nettime-lat] The Web in My Own Language (y II)

 The Web in My Own Language
  WHEN the conversations I have with friends and acquaintances about the
future of English veer immediately toward technology -- especially the
Internet -- it's understandable. Much has been made of the Internet as an
instrument for circulating English around the globe. According to one
that has been widely repeated over the past few years, 80 percent of what's
available on the Internet is in English. Some observers, however, have
recently been warning that this may have been the high-water mark. It's not
that English-speakers are logging off -- au contraire -- but that other
are increasingly logging on, to search out or create content in their own
languages. As the newsletter that The English Company prepared for the
Council asserted in September of 1998, "Non English speakers are the fastest
growing group of new Internet users." The consensus among those who study
these things is that Internet traffic in languages other than English will
outstrip English-language traffic within the next few years.
  There's no reason this should surprise us -- particularly if we recall
there are about 372 million people in the world whose native language is
English and about 5,700 million people whose native language is something
else. According to the same newsletter, a recent study by Euro Marketing
Associates estimated that nearly 44% of the world's online population now
speak a language other than English at home. Although many of these Internet
users are bilingual and speak English in the workplace, Euro Marketing
that advertisers of non-business products will more easily reach this group
using their home language. Of the 56 million people who speak languages on
Internet other than English, Spanish speakers represent nearly a quarter.
  The study also estimated that 13.1 percent of all Internet users speak an
Asian language at home -- Japanese, for the most part. A surge in Internet
like the one that began in the United States half a dozen or so years ago is
now under way in a number of other populous and relatively well-off places.
  As has been widely noted, the Internet, besides being a convenient vehicle
for reaching mass audiences such as, say, the citizenry of Japan or
is also well suited to bringing together the members of small groups -- for
example, middle-class French-speaking sub-Saharan Africans. Or a group might
be those who speak a less common language: the numbers of Dutch-speakers and
Finnish-speakers on the Internet are sharply up.
  The Internet is capable of helping immigrants everywhere to remain
proficient in their first language and also to stay current with what is
on back home. Residents in the Basque communities of Nevada and émigrés from
the Côte d'Ivoire, for instance, can browse the periodicals, and even listen
to the radio stations, of their homelands -- much as American expatriates
anywhere with an Internet connection can check the Web sites for CNN, ABC,
MSNBC, and their hometown papers and radio stations.
  No matter how much English-language material there is on the Web, then, or
even how much more English material there is than material in other
it is naive to assume that home computers around the world will, in effect,
become the work stations of a vast English language lab. People could use
their computers that way -- just as we English-speaking Americans could
our computers to help us learn Italian, Korean, or Yoruba. But, the glories
learning for its own sake aside, why would we want to do that? Aren't we
delighted to be able to gather information, shop, do business, and be
entertained in our own language? Why wouldn't others feel the same way?
Consider, too, that many people regard high technology as something very
like a new language. Surely it's enough for a person to try to keep his or
hardware and software more or less up-to-date and running smoothly without
simultaneously having to grapple with instructions or content in an actual
foreign language.
  Studies of global satellite television -- a realm that is several years
mature than the Internet -- also point to the idea that most people like new
technology better when it speaks their own language. As Richard Parker wrote
in Mixed Signals,
  Satellites can deliver programming and advertising instantaneously and
simultaneously across the more than two dozen languages spoken in Western
Europe, but the viewers -- as repeated market research shows -- want their
television delivered in local tongues. Contrary to a history in which both
motion pictures and early television broadcasts relied heavily on dubbing of
foreign (often U.S.) programming, an affluent and culturally confident
now appears to be more linguistically divided than ever before.
  Parker distinguishes between the "technologically feasible supply" of
foreign programming and the "economically viable demand" for it, warning
we should be careful not to confuse the two. A few years ago, for example,
Sweden aired a "reality-based" TV series, Expedition: Robinson (the word
expedition has entered Swedish from English), and it quickly became a
obsession. But its success did not inspire American television networks to
import the series; rather, they developed new shows, such as Big Brother and
  English by Accident
  T one point in my conversation with David Graddol, he made a little sketch
of something for me on a proof of his article "The Decline of the Native
Speaker." The sketch was meant to remind me that technology has begun to
the distinctions between languages in intriguing ways -- and to suggest how
those ways are themselves starting to overlap. Both the Internet and a range
of technological applications only distantly related to it, he wanted me to
see, are poised to expand what we are able to do with English.
  Graddol uncapped his pen and drew a box in the broad white top margin of
page. "Text to text MT," he wrote in the box, and he said, "Of course you
about machine-translation systems," tapping the box to indicate that it was
represent them. Yes, I did: in fact, The Atlantic published an article about
machine translation not long ago (see "Lost in Translation," by Stephen
Budiansky, in the December, 1998, issue). From Atlantic Unbound:
  Web Citation: "Speaking in Tongues" (December 1997) AltaVista is serious
about global communication. As the article explained, there are translation
programs -- AltaVista's Babel Fish among them -- available for use free on
Internet. Type some English into the appropriate space on the Babel Fish Web
page, or cut and paste it from another source, and choose your "destination"
language -- French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, or German. Presto! Up will
pop a not entirely accurate translation of your chosen text. Or you can do
this in reverse, from one of those languages -- or Russian (the
English-to-Russian feature is still in the works) -- into English. Some
professional translators use machine-translation systems as time-savers,
getting the things to hack out rough texts they can then refine.
  To the left of his machine-translation box Graddol drew a second box,
he labeled "Speech to text." He tapped it and said, "And you know about the
voice-recognition systems that turn spoken words into written words." Yes,
those, too. As it happens, I am the proud owner of a Dragon Systems program .
Current versions of that and several other voice-recognition programs are
reported to render speech into writing with 98 percent accuracy -- not a
that detail oriented people are likely to find reassuring (getting two words
wrong per hundred can add up), but certainly a rate that allows a user to
a point across.
  Speech-to-text systems are now available for a variety of languages.
& Hauspie, an industry leader that recently bought both Dragon Systems and
Kurzweil Education Systems, sells products for turning British speech, as
as American, into writing, and also ones for German, Dutch, Spanish, French,
Mandarin, and Cantonese.
  Graddol drew a third box in the margin to the right, and labeled this box
"Text to speech." He said, "And there are also machines that turn written
words into spoken words." The Kurzweil reading machine, created to help the
blind and visually impaired, and now capable of reading aloud in more than
fifty languages, is the most advanced example in use. Simpler machines that
turn computer code rather than text into speech are of course commonplace by
now. We sometimes hear them when we call 411 and ask for a phone number; we
hear them when we're refilling a prescription over the phone and a
voice confirms our prescription number and name; we hear them on airlines'
flight-information phone lines. These machines may have a vocabulary as
elementary as numbers, the days of the week, and "A.M." and "P.M." But they
get the job done, and they hint at how more-complex systems might work.
  Now Graddol drew lines from one box to the next. "People are starting to
work on connecting all the parts," he said. "Once that happens, a lot of
things will be possible."
  I could, for example, speak into the microphone that came with my Dragon
Systems program and have that program render what I've said in writing;
instruct one of the translation programs to turn the text into French; and
then use Lernout & Hauspie's French-language speech synthesizer to pronounce
the computer's translation. This may strike some as a ponderous process, but
surely it would be less complicated than acquiring a creditable French
the old-fashioned way. Then, too, speech-to-writing and writing-to-speech
programs may materialize on the Internet, much as the translation programs
have done. In that case I will simply talk into the microphone, miraculous
high-tech things will happen somewhere in the ether, and voilà! the computer
at the restaurant L'Ami Louis, in Paris, will make my request for a
reservation known to the staff, in exquisitely correct spoken or written
French, and the maitre d', unwitting, will assign me a good table.
  That's the theory, anyway. I have my doubts about how exquisite the actual
results will be for quite some time. The interchanging of speech with
writing with speech, and English with other languages may, however, yield
serviceable results very soon. According to a compilation of funny signs
spotted around the world, published by the Far Eastern Economic Review, a
Paris dress shop once advertised "Dresses for street walking," and a notice
a hotel elevator in the same city advised, "Please leave your values at the
front desk." If we can understand the intention of these signs -- as of
we can -- then surely we will be able to see beyond most of the
resulting from machines' involvement in language. David Graddol's neat
boxes glossed over myriad difficulties inherent in each step of linguistic
interchangeability. But each of these steps is already being accomplished
approximately, and implemented not just in experimental settings but in real
  Even as software developers continue to adapt computers to our linguistic
needs and wants, we are -- God help us -- adapting our own language to
computers. For example, if I want to see the page about the
psycholinguist Steven Pinker's book Words and Rules (1999), it's a complete
waste of time to type into the search feature "Words and Rules, by Steven
Pinker," correctly capitalized and punctuated. The computer and I will get
exactly as much out of the exchange if I type "pinker rules." In effect, in
this context "pinker rules" is better English than "Words and Rules, by
  Where computers' processing ability and our intelligence will eventually
converge is anyone's guess. As we teach ourselves, for instance, to speak in
way that will make our voice-recognition systems as productive as possible,
developers are tweaking the new versions of them so that if the system
misinterprets a word and we need to revise what it writes, the change will
incorporated into its database and it will never make the same mistake
  Does this matter to the future of English? It may well. What is English,
anyway? Is it the list of words and their meanings that a dictionary
together with all the rules about how to combine the words into sentences
paragraphs? Much more is involved than that. English is a system of
communication, and highly germane to it is what or who speakers of English
care to communicate with, and about what. The more we need to use English to
communicate with machines -- or with people whose fluency is limited or
understanding of English does not coincide with ours -- the more simplified
the language will need to be.
  And yet technology is expanding English, by requiring us to come up with
words to describe all the possibilities it offers. Throughout the past
century, according to Twentieth Century Words (1999), by John Ayto,
technological domains -- at first the likes of cars and aviation and radio,
and eventually nuclear power, space, computers, and the Internet -- were
the leading "lexical growth-areas." What's new of late isn't only words: we
have whole new ways of combining the elements of written language. One ready
example is emoticons (such as :> and ;-o), which seem to have firmly
established themselves in the realm of e-mail. Is www a word? Does one write
the expression dot com or .com or what? And then there's professional
In the course of exchanging ideas, global communities of astrophysicists,
cardiologists, chip designers, food scientists, and systems analysts are
stuffing the English language full of jargon. As science and technology grow
increasingly multifarious and specialized, the jargon necessarily grows
increasingly recondite: in the journal Neurology, for example, article
like "Homogeneous phenotype of the gypsy limb-girdle MD with the g
C283Y mutation" are run-of-the-mill. The range of English continues to
further and further beyond any single person's ability to understand it all .
  One more fact worth keeping in mind is that the relationship between
or technology and English is, essentially, accidental. It is chiefly because
the United States has long been in the vanguard of much scientific and
technological research, of course, that English is so widely used in these
fields. If the United States were for the most part French-speaking, surely
French would be the language of science and technology; there is nothing
inherent in English to tie it to these fields. And if something as
earthshaking as the Internet had been developed in, say, Japan, perhaps
English would not now be dominant to the extent that it is. Future
may well originate elsewhere. In the rapidly advancing field of wireless
communications devices, for example, Scandinavia is already the acknowledged
  Here an argument is sometimes advanced that American culture furthers
innovation, openness to new ideas, and so forth, and that our culture,
by accident or not, is inseparable from the English language. But this takes
us only so far. Even if the vanguards in all scientific and technological
fields, everywhere in the world, used English in their work, once the fruits
of their labor became known to ordinary people and began to matter to them,
people would coin words in their local languages to describe these things.
Theoretical physicists at international conferences may speak English among
themselves, but most high school and college physics teachers use their
languages in class with their students. The Microsoft engineers who designed
the Windows computer-operating system spoke English, and used English in
they created, but in the latest version, Windows Millennium, the words that
users see on the screen are available in twenty-eight languages -- and the
spell-checker offers a choice of four varieties of English.
  IN sum, the globalization of English does not mean that if we who speak
English just sit back and wait, we'll soon be able to exchange ideas with
anyone who has anything to say. We can't count on having much more around
world than a very basic ability to communicate. Outside certain professional
fields, if English-speaking Americans hope to exchange ideas with people in
nuanced way, we may be well advised to do as people elsewhere are doing:
become bilingual. This is easier said than done. If learning a second
were so simple, no doubt many more of us would have picked up Spanish or
Chinese by now. It is clear, though, that the young learn languages much
readily than adults. Surely, American children who are exposed to nothing
English would benefit from being taught other languages as well.
  At the same time, English is flourishing, and people here and  everywhere
are eager to learn it to the extent that it is practical for them to do so.
would behoove us to make learning English as easy as possible, for both
children and adults, in this country and abroad.
  However unwelcome this news may be to some, not even headlong
advances mean that computers will soon be doing all the hard work of coping
with other languages for us. For the foreseeable future computers will be
to do no more than some of the relatively easy work. When it comes to subtle
comprehension of our world and the other people in it, we are, as ever, on

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