African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing

African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing

African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing

African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing


Offering practical approaches to finding a place for African languages in the information revolution, this overview lays the foundation for more effectively bridging the "digital divide" by finding new solutions to old problems. Conducted by the PanAfrican Localization project under the sponsorship of Canada's International Development Research Center, this survey explores obstacles that impede greater use of African languages in computer software and internet content, assesses possible solutions and maps for their reach, and identifies future trends in the field. Among the key issues discussed are the importance of localization in the African context; barriers to more widespread use of African languages in internet computer technology; and by whom, for which languages, and in which countries efforts are being made. Central to the discussion is the introduction of the concept of "localization ecology" to account for the key factors, facilitate discussion of their interaction, and call attention to how planning and implementing localization can and should consider these issues.


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 homogenisation.

However, global tensions since September 2001 have reawakened decisionmakers 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 purposes.

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.

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