Language and ICT

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Language plays a critical part in all of our daily lives and now, ever increasingly, technology is also playing an important role. While language allows humans to express themselves, record and preserve cultural records and develop culture, technology is often argued to be mostly a neutral medium. Certainly, information and communications technology (ICT) at its very foundation is simply the unemotional manipulation of 1s and 0s.

ICT is necessarily adapted to human languages in order to enable its use by non-specialists. For historic and economic reasons, however, certain languages dominate in this role, regardless of where ICT is used. So, when technology is used where the language and culture are different, it will exert an unintentional influence on the latter that could be negative. Localisation – the adaptation of ICT to the language and culture where it is used – allows that cultural pressure to be reduced, eliminated or even reversed.

Language plays an important role in communities and culture. It allows information to be passed from generation to generation. This transfer of knowledge happens in written form or in oral tradition has been happening for millennia. ICTs have allowed this documentation and sharing of knowledge to happen more easily and quickly. However without local language ICTs the very process of documenting indigenous knowledge has to happen with the influence of another language. The lack of localisation impacts peoples' ability to capture and share information yet when localised ICTs can play an important role of a neutral observer.

If the only way to write information is in a language other than the primary one of a culture, then knowledge (cultural, traditional, environmental) is easily eroded. By only writing in other languages new generations no longer see value in the language and therefore do not take on the role of custodian of the language and its related cultural values. Modern ICTs that are not enabled for a language can act to speed up the contraction of the language. As each generation becomes less and less equipped to work in the language we see this phenomenon of language contraction which eventually results in a language that is beyond recovery. There are many factors that influence language contraction but with localisation a language community is equipped firstly to write in their language and secondly to ensure that their language is available in modern ICTs and is thus seen as relevant to the future language custodians. Thus lack of localisation can actually create a force of cultural erosion while active localisation can create the environment in which cultural knowledge is grown, shared and preserved in the language of the people.

An important aspect of the digital divide is access to technology. This would traditionally include physical access (being able to find a computer to use) and financial access (being able to afford a computer). However, often forgotten is the concept of the last inch, the small distance between the eye and the screen that could be infinite if a user is unable to write, to read or understand the written text. Thus having no access to technology even though all other barriers have been eliminated.

The world has moved into what is commonly referred to as the knowledge economy. Access to
information makes it possible for people around the world to share and trade. At the simplest level localisation exposes the technology taken for granted in the developed world: communication, writing, accounting systems and makes the available to local language speakers. Thus opening up opportunities to build systems to allow them to interact with global players but also automate their own systems making them more productive.

The Tunis Agenda adopted during the second phase of WSIS recognises as a prerequisite for
equitable and universal accessibility to financial mechanisms, the development of:

“locally relevant information, applications and services that will benefit developing countries and countries with economies in transition”1

The world leaders reaffirmed in that agenda (paragraphs 90-l and 90-m) their commitment to:

“l) enhancing the capacity of communities in all regions to develop content in local
and/or indigenous languages.
m) strengthening the creation of quality e-content, on national, regional and
international levels.”

Localising the knowledge economy presents opportunities to lower or remove barriers affecting African women. Localised ICTs make information and communication more accessible to women who on average, are less literate in dominant world languages through lack of education. Thus making it possible for them to communicate, build networks, educate themselves and work in environments that augment their current income with all associated benefits.

It is a known fact that mother tongue education in primary schools years helps children be better in the subject matter, better in their mother tongue and better in their second language. Thus this project is extending that language advantage to the domain of ICTs. Enabling learners to fully grasp ICTs by eliminating the problems associated with working primarily in second languages.

Thus it can be seen that the dimension of language and ICTs have a great influence on culture and language preservation and development. But also a great influence in access; computers, technology and the economy. While the lack of localisation has a potential negative effect on all of these dimensions.

By addressing the issue of localisation this network and its sub-projects aim to address these dimensions to indeed turn ICTs into a positive force for all of the above dimensions.