The Sixth International Conference and Exhibition on

Multi-lingual Computing: A Participant's Report

by Kayoko HAYASHI (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)

On April 17 and 18, 1998, The Centre of Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge Univerity and the League of Arab States hosted "The Sixth International Conference and Exhibition on Multi-lingual Computing" at the University of Cambridge. Said to have been taking place every two years, this conference serves as a discussion place for problems concerning multilingual usage on the computer-- that is, concerning the use of languages other than English, or of the simultaneous use of more than one language on the computer. Special emphasis was placed on the Arabic language (also Arabic lettering and related languages). I would like to present an overall picture of the conference, with technical matters related according to the best of the writer's comprehension.

The approximately 50 presentations were held in two locations, while companies exhibited pertinent merchandise alongside.

The topics of the five sessions were as follows:

1)Informaton Super-highways and Multi-lingual Computing: Future Role in the Developing Nations

2)Computer Based Lexicography and Machine Translation

3)Teaching of Languages by Computer

4)Multi-lingual Databases

5)The Hardware and Software Industry

None of the above topic-headings suggest specific treatment of Arabic; however, with only two or three exceptions, most of the discussions were in fact limited to topics related to the Arab world or the Arabic language. According to regular participants, the scope of the discussions has grown increasingly narrow since the first conference in the series; and what had started off including the discussion of the use of Chinese characters in East Asia, has now become entirely limited to the Arabic language proper, even to the exclusion of Persian and all other languages using Arabic script, which have been seeing a steady decline in interested participation. Although this conference had first been organized as an opportunity to address the multi-lingual environment at large (discussing, for example, problems with the Unicode) its scope appears to have narrowed to match the interests of the actual participants. The pros and cons of this phenomenon were heavily debated in the final session. Of course, not addressing the large picture of the multi-lingual environment can be a downside; but overall, the particpants seemed to appreciate the merits of a specialized practical and technical discussion on the Arabic language alone.

From the technical viewpoint, the debate turned to research on the competitive field of "automated translation" software development. The problem of better analyzing and translating Arabic text (English/French---Arabic) can be seen as equally important to Arabic lingusitic research as to business, and both researchers and industry people discussed these problems heatedly. As for Arabic-English automated translation software, some, which can be used for limited purposes (as for business letters and computer-related manuals) are apparantly in the process of being developed, with several types already available on the market; some such devices were demonstrated. The main companies dealing with such software are as follows:





Diwan Software

Future Technology &Information


ATA Software

fax: +44-181-568-2738

Trans Co Solution

In terms of products relating to multi-lingual databases, there was one for Arabic epigraphs, another created for Ibn Hallikan's directory, a Hypertext CD-ROM of Persian poetry, and other such material concerning the study of history and literature, that, when available, would serve as references for academics. As for library-related material, the research room of the British Library presented their system for inputting Arabic texts, and a web database that would aid online searches for Arabic newspaper and magazine articles. The writer herself presented, in the exhibition room, an introduction on the multi-lingual database CD released last year by the Toyo Bunko.

However, such presentations serving the needs of academics were few, and it is a fact that talks on the multilingual environment centered mostly on aspects with business prospects. This tendency was specially manifested in Microsoft's sending their Middle-East representative and a few others to participate in the conference. ( Apple had apparantly taken part in the last conference, but they were absent this time.) Microsoft is in the process of effectuating, albeit in their own way, a multi-lingual environment; however, it is generally agreed that with regards to the original significance of languages co-operating and of multi-lingual use on the internet, their attempts are, as yet, far from sufficient. Nevertheless, considering the Asian and other markets, there is no mistaking that these projects provide a big business opportunity. It was expressed that in the near future, a multi-lingual environment over the internet will be put into effect. Ideas that the Microsoft representatives delivered drew much attention, due to the fact that multi-lingual accomodation within Windows concerns both businesspeople and academics.

One special feature of this conference was the addition of the session entitled "Information Superhighways and Multi-lingual Computing: Future Role in the Developing Nations." Here, the reports of an advertising representative from the United Nations gathered interest. It is said that at present, the U.N. is working to present data and home pages in six official languages. It is a fact, however, that this information is still unavailable in Chinese and Arabic. As this dramatically displays, there exists a tremendous gap between people who use widely accessible languages and those whose languages are kept at a distance from information. This is the so-called information-rich/information-poor problem. However, we cannot alter entire alphabets-- keys, as they are, to culture and history-- on the mere grounds that they are not easily accomodated on the computer. These languages are not easily accomodated on the computer because development in these areas has not been invested in. It was pointed out in the discussion that although this problem may appear to be purely technical, overcoming such hurdles of multi-lingual access in fact signifies overcoming ethnic discrimination through information, and this could promote political and sociological benefits.

One phenomenon and problem specifically concerning the Arab world is that all the information systems are state-run. Although this may be the only way in which the internet may be put into effect, if this means that the information itself is controlled, the users can only partially enjoy the benefits of the "world being connected by one web." Representatives from each country reported how their own nation was contributing to improving the accessibility of information (especially Egypt); unfortunately, however, this did not give rise to much depth of discussion. One commented that in Syria, even opening an e-mail account required permission from the government.

At this conference, present conditions concerning the construction of Arabic-script data bases, Arabic language instruction tools, and machine translation were reported. By nature, such information requires constant updating, and can be thought to be best presented on websites. It is hoped that ICEMCO takes the initiative to actively create such a lieu for this information.

The conference ended with the phrase "". I would like to thank Dr. Ahmed Ubaydli, who had contributed much to the administration of the conference.

The proceedings and pamphlet can be viewed at the Project Management Unit Office. Also, I recommend that those who are interested in the conference contact Dr. Ahmed Ubaydli directly at (