Multilingual Montreal and the new tongues of the Net

Everyone knows that the language of the Internet is overwhelmingly English.

But people like Claude Lemay, president and chief executive of Alis Technologies, know that the growth potential of the Internet is overwhelmingly in languages other than English.

This is good news for Mr. Lemay and his 20-year-old company - and a good reason for them to be in Montreal. Alis helps businesses talk to themselves - and one another - in multiple languages over the Internet. "Our motto is, 'To understand and be understood,' " says Lemay.

"Eighty percent of the new users of the Internet this year - about 150 million - will not have English as their first language," he says. "Forty-three percent of current Internet users do not have English as their first language."

Moreover, real growth on the Internet is expected to come in Asia in the years ahead - in countries with large populations and levels of fluency in English down in the single digits.

Alis does what's known as localization and internationalization: Bring them the software you use in your multinational business, and they will customize it for your offices in, let's say, Algiers, Osaka, Turin, and Vladivostok.

Another major business line is machine translation. Their "Gist in Time" translation lets branch offices of multinational corporations communicate across language gaps. For instance, it lets Bombardier, the Quebec-based aircraft manufacturer, communicate with its employees in Germany and China.

The program has also been incorporated into the Web browser Netscape 6.0, where it can be used to translate a foreign-language page with a click of the button, says Lemay.

It's a small firm, only about 150 employees, but it hopes to add another 350 this year - 60 percent of them in Montreal. "The advantage of Montreal is that it is a truly multilingual city," says Lemay.

Federal Express Canada came to a similar conclusion when it needed to expand its customer-service call center. In 1998, the company decided to double its staffing in Montreal. A major consideration was the high level of language skills among the hiring candidates, says Pina Starnino, customer-service manager for FedEx Canada, outside Toronto. From centers across Canada, the company offers customer service in 18 languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese - three-fourths of them from Montreal.

Similarly, Air France serves customers across the US and Canada from its Montreal call center. Two thirds of its employees speak three or more languages, according to Michel Oligny, head of Air France in Canada.

"It's a regular tower of Babel," he says, with employees able to field calls in Bulgarian, Armenian, and Turkish, as well as more familiar languages.

For English speakers, Montreal may be the one place in North America that holds at bay the forces that otherwise conspire to make it hard to master another language. David Graddol, an expert on the English language at the Open University at Milton Keynes, England, suggests that English speakers get a bad rap for indifference to other languages. "It's not that they're reluctant to learn other languages. For one thing, there's no obvious other language to learn."

For a generation now, there's been an obvious other language for English speakers in Quebec to learn: The province's often controversial language laws in effect require anyone working in a corporate or professional setting to learn French. The laws also require "allophones," - those whose background is neither English nor French-speaking - to be schooled in French. Since they retain their native tongue and generally pick up English on the street, they often end up trilingual.

These are the kind of people Claude Lemay needs to hire if he wants to be all tongues to all peoples. Indeed, the "two languages-plus" standard in Montreal may end up being a bare minimum. Denise Lussier of McGill University spends part of her time at the European Centre for Modern Languages, in Graz, Austria, an institution established by the Council of Europe to promote the teaching and learning of modern languages in a multinational Europe.

"There everybody speaks a minimum of three languages - and we're thinking about whether they can learn four or five," Ms. Lussier says. "Their idea is that all children should learn one Romance language, one Germanic language, and one Slavic language. Here, we're thinking, one or two? There's something wrong here."

"The fourth one is easier," says Lemay - and he knows. He describes himself as having "fluent" French, English, German, and Japanese and "reasonable" Italian, Spanish, and Dutch. "And I'm learning Chinese." He had his first six before he was 20.

Lemay may be less of a rarity than one might think.

"Normal bilingualism is less common than multilingualism," says Mr. Graddol. "What happens is that people don't try to do everything in both languages." There may be one language for the home, another for the workplace, he suggests.

"Everyone" may be learning English, but native speakers are shrinking as a share of world population - from the 9 percent they represented in 1950 to about 5 percent by 2050, Graddol estimates.

The languages enjoying a growth market in terms of native speakers are Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic, he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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