[lg policy] book notice: African languages in a digital age. Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 15 20:49:28 UTC 2010

African languages in a digital age. Challenges and Opportunities for
Indigenous Language Computing
By Don Osborn

HSRC Press/IDRC 2010
ISBN 978-0-7969-2249-6
e-ISBN 978-1-55250-473-4
166 pág.

AT THE BEGINNING OF the 21st century, national languages and cultures
play a much more important role in international affairs and relations
among peoples and governments than some 20th-century analysts and
researchers had predicted. Among the potentially devastating effects
of globalisation, linguistic unification - not to mention
Anglicisation - of societies and cultures has very often been referred
to as its most dangerous negative impact. So dangerous, in fact, that
global summits have been held on cultural and linguistic diversity,
and monumental efforts have been made to prevent cultural

However, global tensions since September 2001 have reawakened
decision-makers and global institutions to the need to understand and
to master the language of others so as to better understand them and
better protect ourselves.

Information and communication technologies (ICTS) facilitate this
interaction as tools that use languages or as language processing and
representation tools. While humanity’s main languages are now well
served by ICTS, there are still thousands of languages in the world in
which one cannot send an email or read a website. Some languages do
not yet have standardised characters, while others have two or three
groups of characters: one group uses the local alphabet; another group
uses the alphabet of a formerly dominant foreign language; and the
third group often uses the Latin alphabet.

When ICTS are not available in a given local language, the opportunity
to produce and disseminate local content (educational, administrative
or tourism content) on the Internet is reduced. As a result, the
chances that the culture conveyed by this language will be shared and
made accessible to its speakers, researchers and linguists who would
like to study it are also decreased. Worse yet, given the widespread
use of ICTS (mobile phones, computers, multimedia and digital
audio-visual aids, etc.), the de facto language imposed on users (be
it English, French, Spanish, Arabic or other) ends up gaining the
upper hand and replacing the local language for ICT and other

This phenomenon is not unique to ICTS. In a recent conference on
translation, one of the speakers attributed the predominance of a
particular foreign language in his government’s correspondence and
invitations to tender to the language preference of administrative
representatives. This resulted in favouring Anglophone companies when
invitations to tender were drafted in English and Francophone
companies when they were drafted in French. The impact of a particular
trend therefore extends beyond its own linguistic dimension to become
political, economic and social in nature.

In the Information Society, in addition to being a means of
communication, language has a socio-economic role similar to that of
money in industrial society. While money is used to acquire material
goods, language is used to acquire knowledge and intangible goods.*

This book is the result of several years of observation, analysis,
consultation and synthesis of the adaptation of ICTS to local
languages in Africa. The goal of the Pan Africa Localization project
led by Don Osborn was to closely track the progress of ICTS in African
languages and clearly identify the priorities that the Pan African
Network for Localization (ANLOC) will pursue in its work plan. This
book is a revised version of the project’s final report. By collecting
and compiling all the data presented in this book, Don has helped
establish ANLOC’S research network and has provided an accurate
picture of ICT localisation in Africa.

This publication will thus be useful for decision-makers intending to
develop a language policy, developers working on language processing,
researchers in the area of languages and information technologies,
donor agencies that fund projects to support local languages, and ICT
users wanting to use these technologies in their local language.

By publishing this book and supporting ANLOC’S work, we are
contributing to the implementation of the World Summit on the
Information Society’s plan of action and its Tunis Agenda. The
decision-makers who gathered in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005
signed a declaration in which they committed themselves to:

* encourage the development of content and to put in place technical
conditions to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages
on the Internet;

* in the context of the Information Society, provide content that is
relevant to the cultures and languages of individuals by providing
access to traditional and digital media services;

* nurture the local capacity for the creation and distribution of
software in local languages, as well as content that is relevant to
different segments of population, including non-literate, persons with
disabilities, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, especially in
developing and transition countries.

The Tunis Agenda is very clear in this regard. The signatories
committed to ‘working earnestly towards multilingualization of the
Internet, as part of a multilateral, transparent and democratic
process, involving governments and all stakeholders, in their
respective roles.’ They also supported ‘local content development,
translation and adaptation, digital archives, and diverse forms of
digital and traditional media’.†

Despite all of the efforts to respect these commitments and to promote
multilingualism on the Internet, we have to admit that there is still
a long way to go before all world languages appear on the World Wide
Web. Few international or regional mechanisms have been implemented,
whereas volunteer efforts, small industry initiatives, and research
projects such as ANLOC have sometimes had a significant impact on the
lives of citizens.

But all these efforts are not enough if policies do not follow and are
not appropriately implemented. For several years, IDRC has been
funding a research network on Asian languages, PAN Localization, which
has played an important role in ICTS and Asian languages. The African
project, ANLOC, is producing dictionaries, terminology and regional
language settings for software. It is also supporting the professional
training of software translators in African languages (in
collaboration with the Localisation Research Centre in Limerick,
Ireland), as well as software translations and the development of
software translation management tools that comply with industry
standards and even define new innovative practices using global and
African knowledge to speed up the development of ICTS in African

The results of this enormous effort should subsequently guide national
policies, which would guarantee and regulate the supply and demand of
ICTS in local languages so that computers delivered to African schools
would be equipped with local language keyboards and software, as well
as with keyboards and software in an international language. It will
take a great deal of time and energy, but it is feasible and worth the
effort. ANLOC and its collaborators will succeed.

Adel El Zaïm
Senior Program Specialist
Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa
International Development Research Centre
"On line Book"


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