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Vernacular languages coming online thanks to Mozilla, grassroots efforts

January 31, 2015  »  WebNo Comment

To date, ICT has actually reduced the level of linguistic diversity. The vast majority of web content is in English, and beyond that, many Africans have to navigate devices and pages in official languages like French, Arabic, or Portuguese. In fact, at least 80 percent of all content on the Internet is in one of 10 languages. The debate over the lack of Wikipedia content in non-English languages has raged for years.

Daily communications are largely in vernacular languages. A bevy of apps serve the needs of speakers of less often used tongues, but they are used by relatively few. Local content creation remains a high priority among internet development advocates (and organizations like UNESCO). Creating a familiar online experience changes the way users utilize ICTs in business and social activities. It instills a sense of pride. It preserves the language.

One level higher than that, there are efforts to localize software, including web browsers. The task isn’t easy. For instance, Microsoft created a Kiswahili version in 2003 but the product flopped. Words were used that didn’t fit the technology. The software wasn’t marketed well nor was it available as open source.

Flash forward a dozen years and Mozilla is undertaking a similar task in creating localized browsing experiences for dozens of languages (90 to be exact). Bambara, spoken widely in Mali, especially as a second tongue, is one of them. So is Fulah, spoken by 20 million people in West Africa. And Malawi’s Chichewa.

The Economist explains how carefully words are chosen:

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food.”

Though companies like Mozilla, Apple, and Google have translated software into languages that are understood by most current internet users, there are still millions of people who are offline – possibly because of a linguistic barrier. As The Economist points out, there is no immediate financial return from bringing rural farmers online. But long term, there is, since someone more comfortable with the language is more likely to reap the benefits of an knowledge economy.

In Gabon, another nation with dozens of vernacular languages, The Innovation Box is using an e-learning platform to bring ICT to underserved populations. According to The World Bank, “BAI’s experience shows that, when users are trained to use ICTs in the language they use in their daily activities (business, household and social affairs), they are more responsible in the management of their vocational training and, in some cases, even buy a computer.”

An action plan created by experts from The World Bank highlights a need for vernacular language ICT applications based on the needs of target audiences. Developers are advised to understand the local culture and identify people interested in relevant content.

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