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

1. Survey of Localisation in African languages: Introduction

With increasing numbers of computers and penetration of the internet around the world, localisation of the technology and the content it carries into the many languages people speak is becoming an ever more important area for discussion and action. Localisation, simply put, includes translation and cultural adaptation of user interfaces and software applications, as well as creation and translation of internet content in diverse languages. Defined as such, localisation can be understood as essential in: making information and communication technology (ICT) more accessible to the populations of the poorer countries – peoples for whom the technology is supposed to offer new possibilities for advancing development; increasing its relevance to their lives, needs and aspirations; and ultimately to bridging the "digital divide."

This document is part of a project – the PanAfrican Localisation (PAL) Project – that seeks to address localisation in two overlapping regions – Africa and the Arabic-speaking countries. Its main focus will be on sub Saharan Africa and predominately Arabic-speaking North Africa, while acknowledging the fundamental linguistic and cultural connections of the latter with the Arabic Middle East. As such, it is concerned with localisation of ICT in the languages particular to Africa and in Arabic (these will be referred to together as African languages except when there is a reason to treat Arabic separately 1).

Africa, which is recognised today as both a continent struggling with aspects of its own development and one where the use of ICT lags behind that of most of the rest of the world, is beginning to see attention to localisation. This is gradual, with projects limited to certain regions, sometimes the result of personal initiatives, but generally without much in the way of organisation, resources, or long-range planning. In addressing this situation, this research paper and the PanAfrican Localisation Project are motivated by the intent to assist the region in making the most of ICT for development (ICT4D) through identifying ways to support effective and sustainable localisation.

The document therefore seeks to explore four sets of questions.

  1. Why is localisation important? What are the barriers to greater use of African languages in computing and the internet? How do these affect the potential for localisation?
  2. What is actually being done for localisation? By whom, for what languages and in which countries? What are the challenges and solutions that they encounter?
  3. What future trends should we look for? What areas to prioritise?
  4. How do these relate to each other and how do we address them in localisation work?

To accomplish this, it is necessary to consider the situations on the ground: from information on languages, speakership, and language and educational policy, to basic information on the current ICT situation, policy, plans, and initiatives, including what is being done already in localisation, where and by whom. Two broad areas – language and technology, as well as their relationship to the social and cultural context – represent the fundamental preoccupations of localisation, but there are other factors that also need to be taken into account.

It is one of the premises of this document that a broader view of apparent and expressed needs can put this information into context and more fully inform programs to assist localisers and ICT4D projects. Understanding the basic information is mainly a matter of drawing on existing research on languages and ICT in Africa. This provides the context for discussion and planning on localisation.

Uncovering what is being done in localisation is more difficult – at least to do systematically – as such activities are often not publicised and out of the view of others (even sometimes in the same country) who might be interested in knowing about them. From there, attention is needed to identifying trends and potentialities – that is, where localisation might be headed and what that means for the future. ICT is a new and unavoidable fact of life in Africa, no less than in other regions, though it is so in ways particular to the needs of each area. Africa is one of the most multilingual regions of the world, so the meeting of technology and language would seem to be of great consequence for development there, even though that fact does not yet get the attention it deserves.

A further task is to determine what sort of information resources and practical skills are needed to assist and facilitate localisation work on the ground in Africa. It is hoped that these findings will contribute to the evolution of the localisation resource website that this project is putting together.

This in turn relates to the visions one may formulate about where technological change is and could be leading, since the evolution of ICT is constant and rapid, and the object of localising and utilising it for development cannot be limited forever to catching up with practice and applications in other world regions.

Beyond that, and returning to basic realities one encounters on the ground in Africa, one cannot separate the tasks and objects of localisation from the larger development and education efforts, policy contexts, and socioeconomic dynamics at play on the continent. This is especially the case as one considers on the one hand, the sustainability of and long term planning for localisation, and on the other, the role of localisation of ICT in addressing larger problems of development.

In order to achieve the goals of this presentation, therefore, one must always keep in mind the main components of localisation mentioned above – language, technology, and their socio-cultural context – as well as the relationships among those and several other factors that affect the possibilities for and the actual implementation of localisation (factors which in turn are affected by the process and achievement of localisation).

For that set of relationships, this paper will introduce the concept of "localisation ecology" to account for the key factors, facilitate discussion of their interaction, and call attention to how planning and implementing localisation can and should consider these.

The document is organised in several sections. Following some background on the topic, localisation ecology and a model to conceptualise it are presented. The two next sections consider the linguistic and technical contexts of localisation in Africa. The sixth section discusses how internationalisation of ICT relates to Africa and African languages, and the seventh deals with current and potential localisation activity. The eighth section discusses needs for sustainable localisation. This followed by a summary and recommendations - which includes a discussion of a web-based resource for localisers and other project possibilities - and the conclusion.

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