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


This document considers the current situation, and the needs and potential of localisation in African languages, including Arabic. Due to the nature of the topic and the range of factors involved, it is extensive and challenging, and yet incomplete. The geographic scope involved is enormous – the second largest continent – and is the home to about a third of the world's languages. Moreover the entire continent, despite regional variations, is generally disfavored with regard to information and communication technology (ICT), and to resources for researching, adapting and extending the technology to the mass of the population.

In principle, ICT should be able to meet people in any language and serve as a tool for development in its fundamental and most comprehensive sense – the revealing of potentialities. But in the context where basic needs are often not met, health crises persist, literacy in any language is low, and many tongues do not have a set orthography, discussion of localising ICT in any form may seem like a luxury. It is however an expression of hope, of affirmation of the value and relevance of Africa's linguistic and intellectual heritage, and a practical calculation that new tools can help find new solutions to old problems – perhaps in the very tongues and idioms most familiar to the disadvantaged.

The document is therefore a beginning with a direction. It consists of a survey document and an extensive set of appendices in wiki form (permitting ongoing online input) on languages, countries, scripts, organisations, and localisation resources.

The overall object is to identify issues, concerns, priorities and lines of work as regards localisation in Africa. It also discusses current and potential areas of focus in localising in African languages.

The paper is organised around several thematic sections on language and ICT and then seeks to get specific about actors and activities in the five appendices. In order to help make sense of the processes of localisation, a model of "localisation ecology" is proposed as a way of accounting for various factors that impact current and possible localisation efforts.

Localisation is a popular topic internationally now, but it is neither a fad nor passing fancy. Nevertheless the observations of one writer, Peter Senge, who researched the fad cycle in business management are worth noting. Senge (2006) observed that new ideas often go through a fairly predictable cycle of interest, during which there is a lot of activity and people getting involved, and then an inevitable slackening of interest, during which the initial enthusiasm wanes and most people move on to other things. And that what makes the difference between something that has an enduring effect or becomes institutionalised in a sustainable way on the one hand, and a passing fad that leaves little long-term effect on the other, is the degree to which the idea is solidly backed up by or linked to theory. In the case of localisation of ICT in African languages, apart some work indicating the importance of first languages as media for communication and learning, there is not much yet to articulate at a theoretical level the importance and utility of using Africa's indigenous languages for all levels of computing and the internet. So this document, in addition to reviewing activities and proposing practical measures, also takes a step, hopefully, to defining localisation in the African context and how it is important in the long term.

Survey Document | 1. Introduction >