A Survey of Localisation in African Languages, and its Prospects: A Background Document

10. Conclusion

This document has attempted to survey the situation of and potential for localisation in Africa. As a key conceptual element in this consideration, a model of localisation ecology has been introduced. Background information on African languages and on aspects of ICT has also been covered, to serve as context for the current situations and recommendations that completed the report.

While the general message of this document is that localisation of ICT in African languages is important and that the potential of ICT for various uses in African languages is great, it is also recognized that the path is not simple. Basic technological and educational situations are not favourable, resources for localisation are few, policies are not actively supportive, and so on. It is possible to make recommendations but we are still left with some major questions.

  • What are likely to be the next phases of localisation in Africa?
  • What aspects of localisation should be prioritised?
  • Who on the language, country, regional, working-language, and continental levels, will lead the efforts, and how to coordinate among them?
  • How can initiatives for localisation best be encouraged, coordinated, and supported?
  • How to gain and sustain policy and institutional support?
  • How can African expatriate and foreign volunteer support for localisation be best used to develop skills on the continent?
  • Where will the resources for localisation come from (especially for less widely spoken and resource-poor languages)?
  • How might the information in this document and the website in which it is integrated (as well as in related sites) be used and further developed to best assist all these efforts?

The information in this document and its appendices is ultimately intended to serve as a resource for consideration of such strategic questions, as much as to assist individual localisation initiatives. Specific information is intended to benefit locally-directed efforts, while the aggregation of specifics in principle shows patterns and connections in consideration of a larger whole. As such these are part of a process, and as with any process there are cycles of evaluation and vision, of review and revision.

Africa is the second largest continent, with some of the greatest linguistic diversity. However it is not yet well placed to take full advantage of new ICTs, let alone to shape them, in order to best respond to the realities and aspirations of its quickly growing population. The expanding multilingual potentialities of ICT also encounter a language policy and sociolinguistic environment that is not currently well positioned to take advantage of these advances.

Moreover, localisation, however successfully it is achieved, is not an end in itself. At the beginning of the document the topic of the "digital divide" was brought up and how localisation, by increasing access to and relevance of ICT, can contribute vitally to ameliorating that divide. The vision of localisation and consideration of how to achieve its sustainability, must therefore involve discussion of how research on and products of localisation can link with ICT4D and ICT4E projects.

In this and indeed a larger sense, localisation is not merely dependent on other forces (per localisation ecology) for its success and contributions. It also represents a new dynamic in social, economic, technological, educational, linguistic, and political development in Africa no less than in other parts of the world. How effectively that dynamic can benefit larger processes is dependent on attention, planning and action, and indeed unity.

The latter point deserves a special note on closing. Unity is a theme that has concerned individual African states, Africa-wide gatherings (some under the banner of PanAfricanism), and continental bodies such as the African Union. Promoting use of individual African languages on national levels has often run into debates about the effect of such policy on national unity. Paradoxically, on the continental level, discussion of the promotion of African languages has frequently resulted in favourable declarations and even action plans, but in the end these have not resulted in much action by individual countries (or for that matter, major donors).

Approaching the issue of localisation on a PanAfrican basis – which has its practical reasons related to the need for collaboration on rapidly advancing multilingual ICT – also resonates in principle with the purposes of Africa-wide conferences and statements on promotion of African languages going back four decades. However, it may risk confronting the same ideological roadblocks on the level of individual governments and even ICT authorities as have previous PanAfrican initiatives relating to Africa's indigenous languages. This is especially the case when the question of prioritising some more widely spoken languages is raised.

It is therefore important to emphasise that the diversity represented by localised content and software does not represent a disunifying force, but rather a common enterprise, and that beginning with some languages will not exclude others, but rather develop resources and capacities to handle all. ICTs in a way are additive by their nature, in that advances for one language enhance rather than hinder the opportunities for work in other tongues.

Although it may seem paradoxical, in the same way that a single character coding system (Unicode) facilitates greater use of diverse scripts, so a PanAfrican approach to localising ICT in many parts of Africa may yield the best results for each and all. Small projects and initiatives unconnected with each other, unaware of the importance of the localisation ecology in Africa, and uninvolved in broader world discussions of local language computing, will not likely achieve sustainable results. But in linked together, that and more is possible.

In the long run, the hope and potential of ICT, through its localisation and adaptation to the languages and modes of communication, is to advance development in its broadest and most encompassing sense, the "revealing of potentialities." It is hoped that this document and the webbased resources with which it is integrated can in some small but significant way further that aim in and for Africa.

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