Albanian in Albion and other fantasies

The United Kingdom is usually roundly mocked as Europe’s multilingual dunce. And we know why. However, the UK government’s brand new MyBusinessRates website illustrates an interesting trend in what we could call the U.K.’s ’domestic localization’ – localizing to minority languages in specific locations.

This Rates site is designed to offer one-stop access to, well the ‘rates’ (or local taxes) that businesses have to pay. What’s interesting about it is that it has been launched in 10 languages – from Czech, Arabic and Soomaali, to French, Albanian and Russian – in compliance with UK accessibility standards that government websites seem to be spearheading. This is a national site, and with its localization repertoire, presumably addresses the strategic languages of business ownership in the UK.

This gradual shift towards greater accessibility for citizens, using localization, display technology and the like, almost certainly began as a response to very local needs. Take Haringey Council, the local authority for the London suburb that fields the Spurs football team. Earlier this summer it went online with a six-language spread, including Kurdish and Turkish. If you drill down, you naturally end up with English language content etc, but the thrust seems to be in the right direction, and the language range suggests that localization is a genuine budget item. It also proves that those advertisements back in the late 1990s promoting London as Europe’s most multilingual city, with over a hundred tongues blooming on street corners and in back-offices, were on the mark.

But the domestic localization effort goes beyond London. If you check out the website for say the Western England city of Bristol, you will not find a localized site, but the offer of city hall information services in 10 core languages (Bengali, Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Polish, Punjabi, Somali, Urdu and Vietnamese), all European languages, and “other languages such as Farsi, Pashto, Albanian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Asian and African languages.”

This UK localization wave naturally needs benchmarking carefully against comparable efforts in other European cities. This could then generate a score card for localized e-services to EU citizens, and over time prepare the continent for effective e-democracy (voting, etc.), where the question of providing online language availability/ translation would have to be thrashed out in all countries. It would also be necessary to inquire more deeply into localization processes as work on these sites, and how local government is able to budget for them and take them on board.

From a rapid scan, France will not yet be tiptoeing down the domestic localization path – ici on parle français. Spain is already multilingual by definition, but on top of regional locales there is a fairly high rate of immigration by people speaking Arabic, Romanian, English, French, Russian, Chinese, Croatian, Ukrainian, Armenian, as well as African and Indian languages such as Pular, Wolof and Urdu. The region of Valencia, for example, has set up a 24 hour interpreting service to handle various incidents and problems. But website localization remain limited in scope to European languages. The same goes for Germany, where Frankfurt and Berlin provide German and English only. Finland’s Helsinki city hall site is in Finnish, Swedish, French, German, Russian and English, but it seems to be a more tourism oriented site. In Denmark, Københavns Kommune, the capital’s city hall, only has an English option, as does Holland’s Rotterdam, despite the fact that these countries (along with Sweden and Germany) host numerous Asian, Middle-Eastern and African residents who would probably like to be informed (if second class) citizens. Is anyone out there monitoring government/local authority sites for language accessibility?

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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