Languages industry

Information Society, globalisation and multilingualism

Today we live immersed in the Information Society. Globalisation, ICTs and, above all, the Internet have put into the hands of society a vast amount of information in the form not only of text but also increasingly in the form of audio, video, images and others. The correct handling and interpretation of all this information is a key factor for competitiveness and for surviving successfully in this new context. This new need puts languages in the foreground since the medium in which this information is mostly found is in natural language. So the economy, information, knowledge and languages are increasingly interconnected.

In the current globalised environment information is multilingual. Even though the increasing use of English as the lingua franca in this globalised environment might lead one to think that the other languages will become less and less important, there are a lot of data indicating that this is not the case:

  • Despite the fact that English is the language with the greatest presence on the Internet, it is not by any means the one that has seen the greatest growth over the last decade. By contrast, the presence of languages like Chinese or Russian has increased tenfold. That is why the relative weight of English on the Web is gradually lessening as new languages come onto the scene.
  • One of the European Union’s long-term aims is that all its inhabitants should master two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
  • The study “Can’t read, won’t buy” conducted on a sample of 2,400 people from 8 countries reveals the importance of offering information in each person’s language when it comes to selling over the Internet.
    • For over 80% having information in their own language is important or very important when it comes to buying financial products, cars, trips or electronic products. As regards consumables, this percentage is still in excess of 60%.
    • What is more, 52% assert that they only purchase in online shops that offer them information in their own language, and 72% say they are more likely to make a purchase if they have the information in their own language.
    • 56% of the people surveyed assert that they attach more importance to the language than to the cost.
    • The same study says that 72% of the people spend more time surfing pages that are in their own language than ones that are in English, even though they may have a good mastery of the language.
  • According to the IOM (International Organization for Migration), there are 200 million migrants worldwide, i.e. 3% of the world population. And by 2015 it is expected that the only factor that will enable there to be a positive growth in the population on a European level will be a positive migration balance.
  • The growing number of official languages in the European Union (currently 23).
  • The increasing mobility of university students between countries.

So, even in the long term the information is expected to go on being multilingual. And to process this information correctly what is inevitably required is that all the languages in which it is in should be properly processed.

Language Industry

The sectors that we can regard as the language industries are as follows:

  • Translation: This includes the companies that offer services like:
    • Translation
    • Localization
    • Interpretation
    • Dubbing
    • ...
  • Content: The companies and services that generate content of some kind, like:
    • Terminology and lexicography
    • Publishers
    • Media
    • ...
  • Teaching. Included here are organisations or companies linked in some way with language teaching, like:
    • Language teaching
    • Mainstream teaching
    • Masters and PhDs.
    • ...

Current situation of the language industry

The language industry made up of companies devoted to translation, teaching and content is becoming more and more important worldwide, mainly due to the huge amount of information available in many languages thanks to the Internet and the new needs arising out of globalisation and migration.

It is not easy to know the weight of the language industry worldwide. There are no global data, although it is possible to provide some sectoral data that indicate trends:

  • Worldwide:
    • The language technologies market had a turnover of 1.4 billion euros in 2003.
    • The market for translations grows 10% per year.
  • In Canada, one of the leading countries in the language industry:
    • The language industry (without taking language technologies into consideration) accounted for 0.2% of GDP in 2004, with a turnover of 2,700 million dollars and 51,700 jobs.
  • Europe-wide:
    • In 2003 there were 300 companies involved in language technology.
    • The translation market is worth 14,000 million euros with 190,000 professional translators.
  • In Spain:
    • 88 research groups and 72 companies in the language technologies area figure in the database of the OESI (Office for Spanish in the Information Society).
    • Right now, there are 700 translation companies (75% SMEs) and 4,000 free-lance translators. The turnover in 2004 was 247 million euros; with a growth of 6% per year.
  • In the BAC (Basque Autonomous Community):
    • In the Basquisation-Literacy sub-sector during the academic year 2005-2006 there were 64 approved euskaltegis (Basque language teaching centres) with 27,000 students and a turnover of 31 million euros.
    • The translation sector had a turnover of 25 million euros in 2005, i.e. 0.043 of GDP. 53% of translators work in the public sector and 47% in the private. Of the latter, 58% are self-employed.

It is clear that the language industry and language technologies make up an economic sector that is far from negligible.

Future of the language industry

In the future the language industry and language technologies are expected to become even more important on a European as well as Spanish State or Regional level, as shown by the following points.

At the request of the European Union, the start of the decade saw the development of the Euromap project with a twofold aim: to describe the state of the art of language technologies and to analyse the situation and future perspectives of the sector in Europe. The following conclusions were reached in the report published in 2003:

  • Language technologies will constitute one of the keys in the next generation of ICTs. In this aspect, Europe has an advantage owing to its multilingual nature.
  • The reinforcement of the language technologies sector could be very important for strengthening the European ICT sector.
  • From a market perspective, the language technologies sector is small but has a significant capacity.
  • Public funding has been very important in the language technologies sector. There has been little private funding, except in voice technologies.
  • Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are leaders, but are closely followed by others, including Spain. In the leading States national funding has been crucial.
  • The process to research and develop language technologies is long and complicated and requires significant assistance from the public administration. Funding must come from the EU and from the States.
  • The setting up of a language technologies agency has been proposed.

Four points from the ELAN analysis conducted by the EU on the management of multilingualism in European industries are also worth highlighting:

  • 50% of the companies have a multilingual communication strategy.
  • English is not the only lingua franca. This varies depending on the geographical area. What is more, even if the initial contact between companies in different countries is in English, in more stable relations the language and culture of the other is taken very much into consideration.
  • The language management of exporting countries is built up around four parameters: strategy of multilingual communication, recruiting of personnel from the other country, recruiting of personnel with language competences and the use of translators and interpreters.
  • 20% of the companies use machine translation or other kinds of language technologies for managing multilingualism.

As regards Spain, the government has set up the OESI (Office for Spanish in the Information Society) which reports to the Instituto Cervantes. The aims of this document and information centre are:

  • To promote the growth of the language technologies sector for Spanish and also to strengthen scientific and business work in that area
  • To inform potential users about the advantages, uses and functions of language technology-based tools
  • To offer the following services:
    • Machine translation
    • DILE, database of Spanish agents in the language technologies sector
    • News
    • Forthcoming events
    • Catalogue of language technology tools

Furthermore, within the National Plan for Scientific Research, Development and Technological Innovation 2008-2011, the following line of action is mentioned with respect to the strategic action of Telecommunications and the Information Society:

  • Line 1. Thematic spheres that produce new products and systems for Telecommunications and the Information Society: Sub-lines. Computing technologies: architectures for high performance systems, advanced multimodal interfaces, embedded and distributed systems, software engineering and information management, intelligent systems, free and open-code software, technologies for processing human language.

All these indicators prompt us to think that the language industry sector has a very promising future and that it has great expectations with respect to growth.

Language industries in the Basque Country

So it is clear that the language industry is a sector with a great future. However, so far and in the Basque Country in particular, it has not been structured or regarded as an economic sector mainly due to the perception held by some of the industries that the sector constitutes a cultural rather than an economic one. And there are reasons to think that it could contribute much to the Basque Country's economy, like the following:

  • A community that is at least trilingual (Basque, Spanish and French).
  • The proactive attitude of the society with respect to languages and language diversity
  • Support from the authorities: EBPN, PCTI 2010, PESI 2010, Gipuzkoa 2.0...
  • The significant number of companies and professionals trained in the areas of translation and language teaching.
  • Tradition of language technologies in R+D+i
  • Attitude favouring the strengthening of the sector displayed by the EU and the State administration
  • General proclamation in favour of language diversity
  • ICTs and globalization
  • Internationalization of Basque companies
  • Social atmosphere driven by Innobasque
  • Training needs as a result of language normalisation

Language technologies for voice and multimedia

However, this language industry sector needs to address increasingly important challenges posed by globalisation and the Internet:

  • Competition from new agents for whom physical distance is no longer an obstacle.
  • Increasingly larger amounts of information to be processed.
  • Growing presence of new languages in the milieu.
  • Opening up to possible new markets.

To be able to address these challenges properly, it is increasingly necessary to incorporate the automatic processing of information and consequently, of languages. And to achieve this, it is essential to develop language technologies, for voice and multimedia.

The development of language technologies for voice and multimedia that are being proposed in the BerbaTek project will mean having a better technology base and a better chance of optimizing and technifying an area with so many future perspectives, which is the case of the language industry. The development of these technologies will without doubt enable the language industry to achieve a better position in this new globalised, interconnected, super-informed and multilingual milieu. What is more, by making appropriate use of the Basque Country's multilingual tradition, the Basque language technologies sector could turn into a European or world benchmark.