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Riga Summit Forges a Unified Vision for Multilingual Europe

By: Rihards Kalniņš (Tilde) - Tilde

06 May 2015

At the Riga Summit in April, language advocates from around Europe convened to produce the Strategic Agenda for the Multilingual Digital Single Market — a roadmap for the European Commission to integrate language into their vision of a European Digital Single Market. Where did this proposal come from, and where is it going? Rihards Kalniņš explains. 

The creation of a Digital Single Market currently ranks among Europe’s greatest priorities – hotly debated, eagerly anticipated, and promoted at the highest levels of the EU. Thanks to this initiative, Europe will combine the 28 national markets into a single one, facilitating cross-border trade and expanding online access to digital goods and services.

To realize this lofty vision, the EU will work to tear down the regulatory walls between nations – no small task, considering the many differences between national and international regulations. At the same time, Europe will also strive to overcome the many barriers –legislative, commercial, and technological – that are keeping us from achieving this goal.

Though several obstacles have already been overcome, and many are on the verge of being crossed, one of the last remaining barriers to the Digital Single Market (DSM) is language diversity.

The Language Barrier in Europe

Europe’s wealth of languages – its cherished multilingualism – is its defining feature and greatest cultural asset. A key feature of European identity, linguistic diversity is also a cornerstone of European Union legislation, which provides for the use of 24 official languages in all official EU communications both on and offline.

Though multilingualism is a core value for Europe, languages also create barriers between people, particularly in the overwhelmingly multilingual digital environment. Due to language barriers, consumers are unable to access goods and services if they are not available in their own language. Businesses are unable to communicate with international customers. And governments are not able to provide public services to citizens across borders.

In the European Commission’s initial strategy for the Digital Single Market, however, language barriers are not addressed at all. Multilingualism is not presented as a challenge that must be met, nor is a plan set for achieving this goal. Though the EU upholds multilingualism as a core value, language diversity is totally absent from the DSM strategy for Europe.

Open Letter to the European Commission

To rectify this situation, Europe’s language technology and research community joined forces to raise awareness of the multilingual challenge in Europe and call for the inclusion of multilingualism in the DSM strategy.

In this effort, it was crucial to show that strong language technology solutions already exist that can make the online market truly multilingual. Scaled up to a pan-European level, these technology solutions could provide a platform for enabling multilingual communication in all EU languages.

The European language community’s plea was put forth in an Open Letter to the European Commission, published online in March. The letter began by adamantly stating: “Europe’s Digital Single Market must be multilingual! The Digital Single Market strategy must address the challenge of multilingualism to provide equal digital opportunities in all EU official languages.”

Within days of its posting, the letter had been signed by hundreds of individuals from across Europe. By the end of the first week, signatures reached 3,000. Signatories included company CEOs, organization directors, Members of European Parliament, language service providers, local politicians, tech pioneers, language researchers, and university professors. The response was overwhelming.

The Open Letter was sent to all 28 EU Commissioners, sending vibes through the corridors of Brussels. The letter with the list of signatures was also hand-delivered to Vice-President Andrus Ansip, the principal author of the DSM strategy, who expressed his interest in hearing more concise strategic recommendations about how language barriers could be crossed.

Riga Summit on the Multilingual Digital Single Market

Next, the issues and challenges raised in the Open Letter – as well as the language technology solutions that can solve them – were discussed and debated in-depth at a major event held in Riga on April 27-29 as part of the 2015 EU Presidency, the Riga Summit on the Multilingual Digital Single Market.

The three-day event gathered more than 350 members of Europe’s language community, who worked together to forge a unified vision for the multilingual DSM. Participants represented a wide range of professional backgrounds, including technology providers, global corporations, language researchers, and EU policymakers.  

The agenda for the event reflected this diversity, assembling a wide range of speakers from various sectors: EU public institutions, global corporations (Microsoft, SAP, SDL), language technology companies (Tilde, ESTeam, Artificial Solutions), national parliaments, NGOs (Translators without Borders), localization service providers (TextMinded), research centres (DFKI, ADAPT), major universities (Oxford, Edinburgh), and key international media including The Economist, EurActiv, and The Guardian.

Working together and drawing on their diverse professional experiences, speakers and participants succeeded in developing a combined strategy as well as initiating concrete actions to bring about the vision for a DSM without language barriers.

This vision was formalized in the Strategic Agenda for the Multilingual Digital Single Market, which describes the specific language technology solutions – many of which were demonstrated in Riga – that can help overcome language barriers in Europe.

Riga Summit participants also drafted a joint Resolution and a Declaration of Common Interests – signed by twelve industry societies and associations including GALA – which states: “We stand united in our goal and interest to support multilingualism in Europe by employing language technology in business, society and governance, to create a truly Multilingual Digital Single Market.”

The Riga Summit was widely reported in the international media, with publications in The Economist and the EurActiv detailing the key issues and outcomes. In an article entitled “Multilingualism and the EU: Babelicious,” The Economist made a particularly succinct argument in favour of increased multilingual support in the EU: “European citizens joined the union for its economic benefits, not because they wanted to dissolve their identities into a larger European one. The Commission’s translation and the Parliament’s simultaneous interpretation may be expensive and confusing. So be it; the union’s multilingualism is a part of its own official motto. If ‘United in diversity’ is to be more than a slogan, multilingualism must be more than a hazy goal.”

Making a Truly Integrated and Multilingual DSM a Reality

In his letter to Riga Summit participants, Vice-President Ansip acknowledged that “language is still a major obstacle to a truly unified European economy and society.” But his views are thankfully optimistic, for he also declared: “By working together to find ways to overcome language barriers, I believe that we can make a truly integrated and multilingual Digital Single Market a reality.”

Vice-President Ansip’s advice also serves as a good starting point for the next steps toward achieving the multilingual DSM. Collaboration is the key to this crucial initiative. Only by working together – researchers, industry, technology providers, language professionals, and academia – can the community collectively develop a solution for guaranteeing multilingualism in Europe.

In moving forward, this collaboration will be crucially important. Stakeholders must work together to ensure that language technology innovations fuelled by advancements in research are widely implemented in practical solutions for business and the public sector. At the same time, all of us collectively must join in the efforts to explain the benefits of language technology to policymakers in the EU. By raising awareness of the issue and also spreading knowledge about the benefits of language technology, we can pave the way for the creation of a pan-European language technology platform – one that combines the best solutions that Europe has to offer. This will provide an essential underpinning of the DSM, ensuring that multilingualism does not stand as a barrier to cross-border trade but, rather, continues to shine as Europe’s greatest treasure.

Rihards Kalniņš is the International Development Manager for machine translation solutions at Tilde, a language technology company based in the Baltics. He holds a degree in philosophy and has written articles on language and culture for The Guardian, The Morning News, and the airBaltic inflight magazine. Originally from the United States, he lives in Riga, Latvia.