Language—a critical business issue in the internet age

Language—a critical business issue in the internet age

Jonathan Sage

‘For the foreseeable future, the wired world will speak our tongue, or,

at least, that of its American masters … The net advances the global

power of the language more ruthlessly than the British empire ever

could, and the obvious effect of this will be to reinforce English as

the world language’.

(Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times).

The above quotation neatly encapsulates one, widely held, view of the future. Ours is rather different. For if the internet is to fulfil its potential for communication, knowledge exchange, e-commerce and e-business, we believe companies will increasingly need to address target audiences in their own language and with localised content.

As the internet expands rapidly beyond Anglo-Saxon borders, its current inability to deliver information in a multitude of languages creates a serious impediment to knowledge sharing. This is not just an external issue to do with the world wide web; as companies seek to exploit internet technology to run their communications and knowledge sharing systems it should be part of the internal agenda too.

During the initial growth phase of the internet most sites and users were based in anglophone zones, primarily in the United States. Most of the tools we use to find and view pages today (search engines and browsers) were conceived and developed in this period with the objective of finding and showing content in just one language.

Recent statistics, though, show a trend away from English as the default language of the web and e-business. In the EU, 75 per cent of web content is already in languages other than English–hardly surprising when you remember that there are more native German speakers in Europe than of any other language, with French next and English only third. Globally, an estimated 70 per cent of web content is still in English but by 2004 this is expected to fall below 40 per cent. Language, of course, is just one aspect of the need for cultural diversity: a recent Forrester report estimates that eyeball time is doubled on sites that are ‘localised’ in respect of both language and culture.

Taking a strategic view of language and its impact on your business

The internet, moreover, is merely one symptom of most companies’ failure to approach language strategically. Whilst few would deny that English has emerged as the first global business language, organisations operating internationally–and that now effectively means any organisation with a web site–should not expect to prosper as a ‘monolingual’ organisation in their non-native language speaking markets. Only six per cent of the world’s population speaks English as their first language and no more than 15 per cent speaks it fluently as a second language. Business, however, should certainly not view the language issue as a threat. ‘Localisation, defined as the adaptation of products to the linguistic and cultural needs and the consumers’ preferences can open new markets for SMEs thus adding to their export potential’, noted a recent European Commission report.

The same monolingual trend applies to organisations’ internal knowledge bases. Even today, those organisations whose intranet cannot host multilingual content nor yield cross-lingual search results, are unlikely to be fully exploiting their knowledge investments and assets.

The traditional approach to combating monolingualism has been to use human translators. However, human translation is a slow, costly, and time-consuming activity. In the internet economy, translation needs to be instant and cost-effective.

What approach should organisations take?

The principle of linguistic diversity often attracts widespread support. But effective multilingual environments are complex. While the manner in which an organisation approaches its linguistic challenges will vary according to business needs and the manner in which content is created and published, the following challenges will confront any organisation planning to implement multi-lingual publications:

** Multi-lingual support adds exponentially to the complexity and cost of managing content creation, revision and publishing tasks.

** Differences in the size and layout of foreign language text on interactive media such as web pages create huge challenges to system designers. French, for example, will require on average 17 per cent more words than an English original)

** Language alphabets and ‘word directio’ (some languages go from right to left and bottom to top, or combinations thereof) also vary, creating additional headaches for interface designers.

Marketing an organisation or its products to another culture and in another language creates new risks for any organisation. An illuminating catalogue of errors can be found at

Developing systems to share organisational knowledge, either internally or externally, is already complex given the wealth of knowledge contained in its various publications, databases and documents. Content is typically created in a silo, designed for a particular occasion and delivered to a specific audience. But in most cases the challenge is to ensure all or some of this knowledge is made available to others inside the organisation as well as to suppliers and customers who might find it valuable.

Before committing to any major new language programme companies should consider to what extent the publication of content is a critical component of any key business process.

Ideally, direction and support for a project to introduce multilingual content and new media publishing needs to be handled at board level. A task group needs to be established with a clear objectives. The group should be led by a person who can take an overall perspective of the way in which content is created, revised, managed and published. It is vital to secure the support of those involved in the content process. Participants need to visualise the changes and to contribute towards the development and implementation of technologies and new ways of working.


In the New Economy, embedding multilingual abilities and functionality into an organisation’s knowledge flows can make all the difference between being fast and agile and being slow and ponderous.

Many organisations first come face to face with the complexities of operating multilingually as they move into e-business. Relying on traditional human translation processes alone, or simply not translating at all, will no longer work in an environment where management must make critical business decisions and bring new products to market at ever increasing speed.

Future articles in EBF will look in more depth at effective language strategies and technologies and their benefits.

RELATED ARTICLE: Examples of failures to address the language issue in product design and delivery:

** Finished goods inventory stock piling for months while type descriptions, operating instructions and manuals are translated.

** Marketing campaigns failing to address foreign language connotations of product names leading to failure to sell in local markets or costly relaunches.

** Software designed centrally without due regard to translation issues and the need for flexibility leading to significant delays in product launches.

** E-commerce internet sites launched without considering need to function with foreign addresses, credit card details and postal codes.

** Multilingual internet sites launched without a common content approach, meaning costly, slow and unsustainable development every time the site changes.

** Corporate intranets that only provide indexing and search tools in English, leading to crucial knowledge not being retrieved.

RELATED ARTICLE: How are innovative organisations dealing effectively with language issues?

Some multinationals, which we consider to be leading the field, are addressing these problems in a holistic way, recognising that all content and publishing tasks need to be integrated.

Certain technologies–such as document management and storage systems, translator support tools and machine translation–stand out as critical in successfully applying a holistic approach.

Many document management systems support open content storage standards that enable content to be electronically distributed across different publishing channels without tying an organisation into a single software product. The ability to define document structures within these standards simplifies knowledge search and extraction and enforces adherence to internally defined content structure standards. Open standards also avoid the need for costly conversion processes. Integrated with workflow management systems and document version control facilities, a large proportion of the review and editing management can be automated resulting in shortened publishing lead times.

When incorporating foreign language and translation features, the technology will support the additional complexity of managing the translation process and synchronising language versions. Most importantly, such technology can track document revision changes and supply the changed portions of text to the translators along with the full document text, dramatically cutting down on the quantity of translation work required.

Further important technological developments are still needed to address the challenges described in the previous section. In particular, localising web page layout for different languages is still largely a manual exercise.

In his book SGML, the billion dollar secret (Prentice Hall 1997) Chet Ensign describes the payoff achieved by Sybase Incorporated after they deployed a document management system. In the initial phase, CD ROMS replaced traditional print manuals:

‘.. four months after they shipped their first CD, Sybase had saved enough in reduced materials costs alone to pay for the entire project.

They also achieved additional and sometimes unexpected benefits. For example, once the web had become a significant method of publishing, they could publish their service documents on the internet with virtually no additional cost. Customers were then able to receive publication updates virtually the moment the authors had completed their amendments. They also saved significantly on their language translation costs. It is very difficult in large-scale publication environments to isolate the changes associated with a new document version. But Sybase expects to be able to use automated extraction programs to isolate changes and re-insert translations into the correct place and hence make significant savings on translation costs.

Further productivity and quality gains are achieved by the use of translator aids such as Translation Memory. Translation Memory (TM) technology works by using previously translated text as a source for automatically translating a new document (or a new version of a previously translated document). Each sentence or phrase in the source document is matched with text located in the ‘memory’, which holds the previous translations. Any full or fuzzy match is then directly used or suggested as a translation into the target text.

Dan Dube, President of Lighthouse Solutions, an American based content management consulting firm, describes* the benefits of the Cummins Engine company. ‘The Cummins Engine currently supports Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish and Portuguese languages. The production of localised operator and maintenance manuals was reduced from six to eight months to 10 weeks. They have realised a 65 to 70 per cent reduction in translation costs primarily due to the use and reuse of common data across publications.’

An internet venture capital organisation in Paris found they were unable to cope with identifying the best funding opportunities when inundated with requests in multiple languages, which they were unable to process. Human translation was not only proving too slow but too costly. By implementing Machine Translation technology they were able to understand and filter applications immediately, forwarding those that met selection criteria to human translation.

* Dan Dube, ‘Case Study: Document Management and Localisation’, Translating and the Computer 21 1999.

Jonathan Sage is Director of Knowledge Management for the Europe, Middle East and Africa theatre of PricewaterhouseCoopers

Peter Stanbridge is a senior consultant in Global Knowledge Management team at PricewaterhouseCoopers

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