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A World Wide Web For Tout Le Monde

News: Analysis & Commentary: THE INTERNET


The English-only signs on the I-way are slowly coming down

It's lunchtime at the High Tech Cafe, perched above the lively Montparnasse quarter of Paris. Georges Martin, a cabbie, and a half-dozen others are poring over personal computers and Internet connections. Martin was intrigued by the home page of a taxi service in Vermont. "You can find French services, but with difficulty," says Martin. "But when you look to English, whew--the sources are infinite."

It's little wonder non-English speakers have trouble cruising the Net. Perhaps 80% of Internet sites today are located in English-speaking countries (table). But as the Internet goes global, pressure is building to take down the "English-only" signs. In fact, technology is rapidly evolving that will let people Net-surf in their native tongues. In Europe, for instance, "the Internet has been a bit slow to develop because the perception is that there's too much content in English," says James Lewis, president of Globalink Inc., a Fairfax, Va., translation program company.

Still, the explosive growth of the Internet has made knowledge of En-glish--already the language of international business and science--an even more valuable commodity. In Brazil, for instance, demand for English classes took off about four years ago and has intensified over the past year because of the popularity of the Internet, says Lorna Burleigh, regional director of the Sao Paulo area for Yazigi language schools, which enroll 110,000 students in Brazil. "Many people who speak English well now want to improve their writing skills to communicate better on the Internet," says Burleigh.

Yet the alternatives to English on the Internet are increasing apace. For example, a wave of new programs will automatically translate E-mail and Web pages from one language to another. "The Internet is the application that machine translation has been waiting for," says Glenn Akers, president of Language Engineering Corp., a Belmont (Mass.) company that is developing a product to translate English Web pages into Japanese. Globalink is about to market a new Netscape add-on that does the same for German, French, and Spanish. Although not perfect, the translations will enable people who aren't fluent in English to navigate the Internet. One reason for such developments: The English-speaking elite in many countries often is not large enough to make English-only online services profitable. "The Net can only achieve a certain level of penetration into non-American cultures if it remains a dominant-English platform," notes Ted Julian, research manager for Internet commerce at International Data Corp.

BRAZIL ONLINE. Web surfers in France now have access to a new online search engine called Ecila, which lists all Web sites created in France and that are about France, 70% of which are in French. The French-language online service Infonie will soon be branching out to Belgium and Quebec, with plans to expand to the U.S. as well. "We will open the service up everywhere there is a French population of 200,000 or more," says Bruno Bonnell, CEO of Lyon-based Infogrames Entertainment, which runs Infonie.

English isn't about to squeeze out Portuguese in Brazil, either. Sao Paulo's Abril media group is planning a commercial online service in Portuguese, modeled after those in the U.S., which will make its debut in April. "English will continue to be important on the Internet here, but it won't be the only thing," says Zeke Wimert, an American expatriate and president of Unitools do Brasil, a Sao Paulo-based software consultant.

Japan, which is lagging behind the U.S. in online usage, also is resisting the English takeover. Students there study eight years of English, but many Japanese now argue that personal computers and software are advanced enough to easily run good kanji-character programs. "Japan is fighting the concept of English [language dominance]," says Tony Laszlo, a lecturer at Tokyo's Wako University.

All this activity worries those who believe that an English-dominated Internet is the route to a world united by a single language and instantaneous communications. But in reality, an En-glish-only system will discourage use. Only the addition of other languages to the Internet will enable it to truly become a global network.By Michael J. Mandel in New york, with Edith Hill Updike in Tokyo, Ian Katz in Sao Paulo, and Marsha Johnston in ParisReturn to top

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