Clearing the hurdle of multilingualism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"Fintech", short for Financial Technology, covers start-ups in peer to peer lending, transfers and crowdfunding. [Marketing Land]

Only four percent of online spending by Europeans is currently done through cross-border purchases, largely due to segmented national language markets, argues Jochen Hummel.

Jochen Hummel is the CEO of ESTeam and Coreon, two language software companies. Hummel is also the chairman of LT-Innovate, the association of the Language Technology Industry. EURACTIV is a Media Partner of the annual LT-Innovate Summit, this year taking place on 25 and 26 June in Brussels.

The Digital Single Market (DSM) has been declared a European priority by the European Commission. Rightfully so! Software eats everything, and e-commerce is enjoying dramatic growth rates and thus heavy investment. Vice-President Andrus Ansip has nicely summarized the vision of the Digital Single Market: “Consumers need to be able to buy the best products at the best prices, wherever they are in Europe.”

Today, unfortunately, that means that the consumer is in most cases spending her/his money on a non-European site. The numbers are actually shocking: according to a recent Commission infographic the Digital Market today is made up by 39% national online services (likely not giving you the best deal) and 57% by US-based online services. EU cross-border, however, represents only a minuscule four percent!

Given the potential for growth and new jobs, the Commission has launched a digital strategy to pave the way towards the DSM. It lists many laudable initiatives, like affordable parcel delivery costs, tackling of geo-blocking, simplifying VAT arrangements (after they just have been made unmanageable for cross-border SMEs), modernizing copyright, and strengthening European data protection rules. All this will surely help, but does it really address the core challenge of the Digital Single Market?

Commissioner Oettinger recently stated that a Polish citizen being refused to buy products on a German website is not compatible with the idea of Europe. I am not so sure whether that online business is really rejecting the customer. Why should it? It probably rather has a hard time communicating with this customer. But worse, the Polish citizen likely never managed to find the German website. A simple search already breaks the vision of border-less shopping. Enter a string in your language and the search results will already trap you in your national market. But even if a product name search crossed these language silos, the Polish citizen probably won’t understand what the German website is offering.

The main hurdle towards a Digital Single Market are Europe’s many languages. It’s amazing how politics, but also business, have overlooked this so far! Or maybe rather chosen to ignore it? Perhaps because they don’t know how to solve it? The big investments in technologies to overcome the language barrier have often produced only academic results. The field is dominated by research institutions and small niche players. This makes it hard to discover, purchase, and deploy language technology solutions.

Luckily, language technologies can today indeed enable the Polish citizen to find, buy, and use a German product or vice versa. By using data-driven approaches, innovative language technologies such as search, automatic translation, voice recognition, knowledge management, sentiment analysis, and many others, have achieved acceptable quality for the major languages. They are ready to be deployed in European eCommerce sites.

However, for achieving the vison of the Digital Single Market, we have to support at least all of our 24 official languages, and those of our most important trading partners. This requires a basic natural language processing infrastructure. The European Language Technology industry is therefore pushing for the European Language Cloud, a public infrastructure providing the basic functionality required to process unstructured content. Through an API, the European Language Cloud provides basic language technology services such as tokenization, named entity detection, etc. for all languages, in the same base quality, under the same favorable terms.

On top of this infrastructure, European language technology companies, mostly SMEs, will expose their offerings in the LTI Cloud. The LTI Cloud is a Software-as-a-Service wrapper around language technology components and functions as a marketplace. It will make it easy for start-ups, eCommerce, system integrators, and software companies to discover and plug ‘n’ play language technology. The fourth edition of the LT-Innovate Summit, the yearly point of convergence of the Language Technology industry, will explore how to concretely launch these crucial building blocks for the DSM.

In a recent article, the Washington Post mocked Europe’s DSM efforts by stating that Europe’s digital decline is actually accelerating. I would counter that. Why don’t we turn this much moaned about hurdle of Europe’s multilingualism into a unique opportunity? If we manage, in spite of our many cultures and languages, to create a Multilingual Digital Single Market, we will become the fittest for the global market.

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