There are 1 billion of us. We should build our own Internet and lock out the English-language Internet! That was the undercurrent theme I encountered last March at a Taipei conference titled “A Chinese Language Based Internet Economy.”
There is ample justification for the Chinese, and other non-English speakers, to be frustrated over their inability to access the Internet. They want to participate and benefit from this huge socioeconomic revolution. But the overwhelming majority do not understand English, or the other mostly European languages of the Internet, and they feel left out. For the Chinese people, the problem is worse because of their many ideograms, which make keyboard use nearly impossible. The Chinese, like all the rest of us, will have to live in a world of many human languages. What might they and we do about it?
The Chinese should begin by forgetting the absurd idea of a linguistically private Internet. In a Chinese Internet, who would buy the millions of computers, cell phones, TV sets and other manufactured goods now sold by the Chinese to Western companies? With 80 percent of the Internet’s economic activity business-to-business, and with economic globalization expanding, such a move would spell economic suicide. Instead, the Chinese, the other non-English speakers around the world, and the English speakers, should shape the Internet into a truly international medium that is equally useful to all its participants. This is not a utopia! Before we show how it can be achieved, let’s take a peek at the potential benefits.
Take information access. There is a huge amount of educational, cultural, governmental and other information within China that will benefit the Chinese, in the same way the current mass of information on the Web benefits English speakers. Information access between China and the West would be just as beneficial in both directions, for example to exchange information about Chinese and Western medicines, culture, tourism and trade.
Next, take Internet-mediated human-to-human transactions, which include the purchase and free exchange of goods and office work. The Chinese would profit from sharing among themselves information on recreation, trade, health, government, education and a myriad of other services. They would also benefit from a brisk international brokerage and trade activity with the rest of the world. And, who knows, the increased proximity among them from these activities might even help heal China’s political split.
But let’s not get carried away: Not all forthcoming technologies will be equally helpful to each economy. Automation will be useless within China and India, where labor is plentiful and inexpensive. And there is the problem of the poor around the world, whose participation in the Internet involves more formidable barriers than language.
How do we get to a truly international Internet? Through a combination of modern technology and ancient human practices. On the technology side, commercial speech understanding systems are finally emerging that can recognize more than 90 percent of the words spoken by their users. The Chinese could use this technology to speak to their machines without having to resort to ideograms. Although Chinese keyboards are far more complex than English keyboards, experimental speech understanding systems at the MIT Lab for Computer Science for Mandarin Chinese are no more complex than those for English. Unlike typing, speech understanding by machine seems equally practicable for both languages.
Speech technology could also help people who cannot read or write, but who could still have productive exchanges on the Internet using their native speech. However, the most promising avenue to internationalization will be the ancient human practice of translation, but with an important twist we’ll call “total translation.” By this, I mean not only a conversion of a Web site’s sentences from one language to another, but also a “translation” of the culture and mindset of the site to the culture and mindset of its new audience-a difficult yet essential task.
Here’s how this approach would work: People with superior knowledge of at least two languages would form a new breed of dot-coms that would offer total translation services to organizations in each of their linguistic territories. A Chinese company, specializing in Chinese and English, would sell its services to Western companies anxious to do business in China, and to Chinese organizations seeking Western visibility. The translator companies would thrive, because the economic motives toward universal visibility and reach are powerful. So much so that they could overflow beyond the commercial sector to help the spread of noncommercial multilingual sites. After a long time, this process would cause the distribution of languages on the Net to approach the distribution of languages around the world. Chinese would then dominate the Internet, making the absurd idea of a Chinese-language based Internet Economy a reality…that was obvious all along!