ERCIM News No.26 - July 1996
In Favour of Multilinguism
by Bernard Quemada
The linguistic unification of Europe is no longer a necessary requisite
to overcome language barriers; the identity of Europe can only be represented
adequately by respecting its diversity. And only the promotion of all its
national languages will allow us to preserve the richness of the culture
of which these languages are the privileged means of expression. The multilingual
policy adopted by Europe is thus a critical test for the European Union.
In 1995, the European Council officially recognised the importance of multilinguality
by twice taking a strong position in its favour. At Corfu, the importance
of linguistic questions in the Information Society was underlined; in Cannes,
the intention to support linguistic diversity and to promote multilinguality
in all the strategic decisions and actions of the Union was confirmed. In
this way, the Council explicitly recognised the separate identity, the intellectual
resources and national heritage legitimately associated with each of the
European languages. It was acknowledged that the cultural, economic, social
and political values involved are so considerable that they cannot be ignored
Faced with the need to provide means for standardization with respect to
the worldwide diffusion of communications in the Information Society, the
preservation of multilingualism is both a priority and a strategic objective.
Although, it cannot be denied that a simplified version of English is currently
used in most scientific, technical, financial, and commercial exchanges
of information, the consequences must be evaluated. The apparent convenience
does not and cannot compensate for the impoverishment of the quality of
such exchanges and the constraints imposed on the intellectual products
that result from this type of exchange. This kind of impoverishment increasingly
concerns the whole world, not even the English language can be considered
as immune ­p; its very identity is threatened by this tendency towards
simplification. Immediate measures and a plan for action are now essential
in order to safeguard, in the first place, the scientific and technical
national languages which are those most severely threatened by this trend.
Paradoxically, the new information technologies are also being challenged
by this situation; their impact on language will be even more important
than that of printing during the last centuries. They represent both a danger
for those languages which are unable to adopt them in time, while at the
same time promise to be a means for their safeguard and promotion. The tools
for automatic processing of natural language which are now being developed
are certainly the best guarantee for the future of our languages.
In this spirit, a priority plan for action should be stipulated by the relevant
national and European authorities, both public and private. In fact, although
numerous programmes supported by the European Commission are already considering
aspects of this question, the actions aimed at promoting multilinguism should
be reinforced and coordinated with more consistency.
Here below, we give an indication of some of the main points to be borne
in mind and objectives to be pursued:
Multilinguality in special domains
- Intensify research and development in the processing of national languages:
support original industrial applications in preference to adapting imported
products; not give priority only to the market laws to the detriment of
- Make the linguistic resources needed for multilingual language processing
in priority domains available, ie specialised corpora, lexicons1, multilingual
Valorisation of the cultural heritage
- Implement multimedia tools for foreign language learning in science
and technology, first aiming at the rapid acquisition of passive skills,
ie comprehension of written texts, and then at oral competence.
- Develop tools for the writing, reading and translation of specialised
texts, to be implemented, for example, in office workstations.
- Create programmes that make it possible to access information in foreign
language texts with queries formulated in the native language.
- Promote the creation of electronic journals, newsletters and forums
on the network (Internet etc.) in the national languages, and, if this is
not appropriate, make computational aids available to read them (mini-grammars
and special lexicons1).
Necessary actions for all languages
- Encourage the digitizing of old and new text resources as well as
the automatic acquisition of textual data in order to promote the development
of digital libraries; study and develop the corresponding tools for access
- Stimulate the production of tools for a renewed literary education
of the public; encourage hypertextual and multimedia publications of the
great European authors.
Within the framework of European and global cooperation:
The European Union is unquestionably the authority that can make these actions
become fully effective. But it is still necessary that for all European
languages, widely used or not, in each member state, the decision makers
are made aware of the importance of stakes and above all of the urgency.
Time is short, very short.
- Intensify networking, which has already proved its effectiveness by
connecting complementary projects even when coming from different programmes.
- Define, generalise and promote the use of the still insufficient international
standards (character sets, data structures, harmonisation of thesauri used
in multilingual query systems).
Vice-President du Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française
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