Buffett, Gates, & the future of linguistic diversity

d_z_o dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Sun Aug 13 17:50:12 UTC 2006

Belated thanks to Phil, Mia, Susan, and Charles for their feedback re
my posting last month on the topic of this (double-)mega foundation
and what it might do for minority languages and linguistic diversity
(esp. where the use of tech might be involved).

I began to compose a follow up but am only now getting back to it. One
reason is an article I note in today's NY Times entitled "Bill Gates's
Charity Races to Spend Buffett Billions"
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/13/us/13gates.html . The title is
scary. Or at least it does to me, having learned early on about
international development where people get promoted (or at least used
to) on the basis of how much money they move, small projects don't get
much attention, and terms like "burn rate" are part of the discourse
about funding. In the case of Gates/Buffett, the context of spending
may be a little different, but any time the priority is on spending,
it's almost inevitable that some good things get funded, some bad
things get funded, and some good things get overlooked.  Language -
revitalization, localization, documentation, education - will likely
be among the areas overlooked. Unless...?

Last month there was some discussion in this thread of the wisdom of
looking to the Gates Fndn for support fot language & technology
initiatives. There is a tendency to conflate Bill Gates + ICT + MS and
at least for the first two parts I was guilty of that too. But I do
think that a charitable foundation is not or should not be beholden to
any particular company (the third part, MS in this instance), even
when related in the sense of being the original source of wealth that
created it. So that, for example, a Ford Foundation grant that
involved a vehicle purchase wouldn't have to go to the Ford Motor
Company. Likewise we've even seen a little bit of evolution in the
approach of national agencies that finance international development
projects, away from insisting that everything possible (regardless of
adaptedness or cost) that is needed for a project be purchased in the
funding country. So, hopefully if the Gates/Buffett monies could in
some small but significant way be allocated to projects for community
language work, and if those projects involve ICT, this would (should)
not automatically mean use of a particular package of software
solutions. (i.e., Gates Fndn $ does not necessarily mean MS applications)

At the same time, ICT these days is the message (per Marshall McLuhan)
in a lot of ways. It made Gates' fortune (though not Buffett's). It
offers new approaches to solving problems, including finding ways to
preserve languages, revitalize them, expand their use for other needs
(education, social & economic development), and employ them to help
people learn ICT (bringing things full circle). It is fundamental to
the rapidly evolving economy. Etc.

So, with a lot of money intended for philanthropy in one corner, a lot
of questions and needs re language (survival of endangered tongues,
use & development of vernaculars for more effective communication &
development) in another corner, and ICT as a potent tool, it is
natural to look for connections (canals?). Why shouldn't Gates
Foundation - "turbocharged" it seems by major additional monies and
requirements for their disbursement - consider multilingual ICT, and
via that, broader support for language-related initiatives?

The fact that the Gates Foundation already funded technology awareness
programs (per Phil's e-mail) is an obvious lead. Or seems to be.
Susan's caveat re the actual aims of the Foundation in those programs
and what it has *not* done (i.e., language revitalization, etc.) are
important to know. How can one build on and expand from such a tenuous

Mia mentioned that Bill Gates in a recent interview said that "he is
interested in talking to people who are working on technical solutions
for learning/education." Well this nexus of issues re language is
right there, waiting. It may be of interest to add that Gates in a
speech last month in Cape Town spoke of technology as "a solution" to
development issues in Africa. At the same conference the issue of
localization of ICT in African languages came up. 

It's easy to get the impression that we are close to some serious
program breakthroughs wrt multilingual ICT and localization for
various purposes, but it's precisely at such a time that focused
effort is needed to create something tangible (what specific programs
to what specific ends with what specific resources when where & how?).
Whether this translates into potential programs (or a leadership
role??) for the Gates Fndn in this regard is a question.

Whether that is what we'd want (if we look past the money) is another
question (per Charles and Mia). But what's at issue here, IMO, is more
than another source of funds for documenting endangered languages
(which has an important place). Or even for a wider range of specific
language-related projects.

It's arguably more a matter of long-term vision and planning, and how
significant resources at a high level (along with targetted grants for
specific kinds of grassroots activities) can improve the environment
for linguistic diversity. This has many facets. For instance:

1. Language policy, planning, management. 
2. Opportunities for speakers of minority languages. (Various, that
relate to their mastery of the languages.)
3. Development of materials and tools for education in minority
languages (that is more than mere translation from European languages)
4. Training of teachers for work in minority language / bilingual
5. Cutting edge ICT for various uses with/in minority languages.
(Things that market incentives alone will never generate investment for.)
6. Linkages among diverse minority language projects around the world
(co-learning, exchanging experience). The fact that this will
necessitate resort to more widely spoken languages does not introduce
anything new.

Maybe I'm just dreaming (in addition to rambling on here), but since
significant funds are being made available for worthy causes by this
particular Foundation, isn't there a way to get language on their agenda?

Don Osborn
PanAfrican Localisation project

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