Friday, October 02, 2015

Thoughts on linking L10n and ICT4D in Africa

It is striking that in Africa - multilingual as it is - discussions of uses of information and communication technology (ICT) for development (ICT4D) generally pay little attention to how one might optimally adapt the technology and the content to national linguistic realities. There are explanations for this, including for example:
  • An outward-looking focus on the internet as way to tap international markets and knowledge (contrasted with a relatively limited local market for internet content, although that is changing somewhat with increased access to smart mobile devices)
  • The roles of English / French / Portuguese as official languages, and higher status of these Europhone languages relative to African languages
  • Attitudes about language (the notion that African languages are not adapted to science or technology, the impression that there are too many African languages to deal with)
  • Issues relating to the written form of languages (in some cases lacking or not standardized, or standard orthographies may not be widely taught; computer systems from abroad may not have fonts for the alphabets used to write the languages)
However, explicit attention to potential uses of the first languages and local lingua francas in ICTs could address such issues and lead to various benefits: some in areas on which traditional ICT and ICT4D policies focus (such as enhancing user skills in ICTs; increasing relevant web content); and some in other areas important to development that fall outside the usual ICT discussions (language development, links with indigenous knowledge, new kinds of creativity).

Discussions of localization (L10n) and multilingual computing in the context of ICTs for national development could be built around several themes, such as:
  1. Dialogue between ICT policy and language policy processes. There is apparently little overlap between ICT policy and language policy in most countries of Africa, hence little institutional support for discussion of "localization policy" or, as it is called in some Asian countries, "local language computing policy." This structural divide can go all the way down to the level of computer technicians and linguists. Bringing together discussions of language policy and planning, and education policy as regards languages on the one hand, and ICT policy as concerns expansion of use of the technologies and their contribution to development on the other, could yield some new insights and foster collaborations among efforts to promote ICT4D and develop languages.
  2. Approaching localization as a way of adding value to the impact and potential of ICT for national development. Localization is not about replacing one language with another, of course, but rather adding diverse language capacities and content to computer systems and the way we use them. ICT is in many ways inherently additive or positive sum - adding one more option in terms of language interface or content need not take away from another, but rather adds to the benefits potential users can get out of ICT, and what they can use the technology to accomplish. In a multilingual context, promoting ways of enhancing language capacities of computer systems (localizing software, developing tools to make that possible) and increasing diverse language content (through localizing content and creating local content) are relatively inexpensive ways of giving ICT more dimensions, (soft) access points, and meaning - hence value.
  3. Linking with broadcast technologies. Broadcast media - the older forms of "ICTs" in effect - have been "localized" from the beginning, so the interface with technology that is not localized will be limited. Localization of web content about important topics in health and livelihoods, for example, could be used directly by community radio stations, without the need for locally (and potentially inaccurately) translating that information.
  4. Leveraging the benefits of internationalization of ICT and of language technology for Africa. A lot of work has been going into making computer systems and software more able to handle diverse languages and scripts: Unicode's accommodation of all writing systems; tools to develop language resources (from keyboards to corpora); open-source opportunities for localization; research on advanced applications (such as computer assisted translation), etc. Multilingual Africa stands to benefit a lot from these advances (and contribute in turn to them), but it has not, on official levels, been systematically seeking either to take advantage of the opportunities or to place itself in a position to participate more fully in the future (e.g., training of computer technicians in aspects of language technologies). There are some initiatives on NGO, academic, or project levels, but official support has in most countries appears to be minimal. This is an area that ICT policy can address.

(Adapted from a message to the Afrik-IT list entitled "Re: Ghana and other open access network model and SAT3," 23 August 2007. This blog entry was originally posted on 30 September 2015 and inadvertently deleted.)

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