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

8. Needs for Sustainable Localisation

As localisation of ICT in African languages becomes more important, building on the foundations discussed above, it is also essential to consider what is required to facilitate its ongoing development and the accomplishment of its ends. In effect, localisation, which is introduced in the beginning of this document as an end that meets and anticipates current and future needs of Africa for linguistically diverse and contextualised use of ICT, is also a process. And that process in turn has needs in order to meet that purpose and achieve sustainable results.

This document has sought in part to look at that process as well as the results of it. This section reviews the needs of localisation and localisers.

Two dimensions of the question emerge: the types of localisation, and who is doing the localisation. These are considered below in general and with specific reference to localisers, and to the assessment of needs done by participants in a workshop sponsored by the PanAfrican Localisation project in Casablanca, Morocco on 13-15 June 2005. This is followed by a strategic perspective on needs for sustainable localisation in Africa.

8.1 Needs by Kinds of Localisation and Localiser

As discussed above, (2.2), localisation can refer to several concerns. The main ones identified were: equipping of systems, content and user interfaces (software). The localisers in turn were identified (2.4) as falling into three main groups – Africans in Africa, Africans abroad, and foreigners – of which our main concern is in Africa. This part gives an overview.

Needs by kind of localisation

The technical prerequisites for equipping systems and for other kinds of localisation in extended Latin and non Latin scripts are in large measure being met through internationalisation of ICT (section 6, above). The main need here, whether recognised or not by computer technicians, linguists and localisers in Africa, is greater awareness of available resources and in some cases training in use of Unicode.

Likewise, creation and translation of localised content is more demanding, primarily of language skills and awareness of tools appropriate to the work (such as appropriate fonts, how to code in extended Latin and non-Latin scripts, etc.). However, once one begins to talk about text, there are also issues of standardisation of the written form of the language itself (orthographies, spelling, terminologies, etc.). The latter are more properly a concern of applied linguistics, but an example of the dynamics of localisation ecology: unresolved issues over the written form may be a problem for certain kinds of localisation from its achievement to its reception.

Software localisation gets even more involved, especially in the technical skills required. With regard to language, specialised terminologies for ICT concepts in languages new to the technology is an issue. Efforts to design tools to facilitate translation of software by people with language skills but no technical expertise is a new area.

This begins to get into the area of the varying needs of people involved in localisation in order to most optimally participate. Before considering that in more detail, it is important to consider the sustainability dimension, which implies a wider range of concerns and even strategic considerations.

Needs for sustainability

Sustainability – a common term in development – refers to the chances for longevity of a system or achievement, and that in turn depends on the design, how it takes into account factors that affect it, etc.

At the most basic level, the tasks of localisation involve an interface of technology and language. These have sense only in their mutual consideration of socio-cultural factors (the user profiles, the ways language is used, cultural appropriateness, etc.). This, as discussed above (section 3), is the core set of dynamics in localisation, but these dynamics are part of a larger environment. Therefore, additional needs of localisers are to understand this context and to have wider support in the environment.

Needs of localisers

One could say that localisation is people to the extent that the process requires their motivation, skills, and organisation. The people who work on localisation of course come from diverse backgrounds with diverse strengths and interests. In general their needs are defined in the context of the localisation effort they are part of, which is to say that the specifics depend on the work being done.

Nevertheless, one might say that in an effort that by definition requires some mix of language, technical, and organizational skills, localisers potential needs in terms of information, support, and training would be in one or more of those areas.

Localisers in Africa, as a category of people working on localisation, is sure to be the fastest growing of the three mentioned above, and any attempt to evaluate localisers’ needs in more detail will naturally need to focus on them. In general, one can safely say that localisers in this context will tend to be stronger on the language side than the technical one, which implies some mix of training focused on the technical aspects of localisation and tools to facilitate localisation.

8.2 Understanding the Needs of Localisers

Understanding what localisers in Africa need in order to start and follow through a localisation initiative can be approached from two directions: 1) an overview and analysis from outside; and 2) the localisers themselves. Both have a value, but the localisers from their experience know the material and information needs of the localisation process.

As part of the PanAfrican Localisation workshop in Casablanca one of the goals was to get feedback from localisers about the needs for localisation. Preparation for this involved outlining anticipated topics and programming workshop sessions to explore the topic.

The initial suggested breakdown for analysing needs for localisation in the PanAfrican Localisation workshop consisted of two broad categories: Technical and Linguistic; and Strategic and Organisational. These categories are explained below.

The thought was that this outline could be expanded upon by localisers themselves. This was the approach taken before and during the workshop in Casablanca, using the PAL wiki beforehand and then workshop sessions when participants were together.

Technical and Linguistic

The main question under this heading is: What are the technical and linguistic needs for localisation to succeed in Africa? Technical and linguistic factors110 are both fundamental to localisation tasks, and indeed for other treatment of writing and text in ICT. It was felt to be useful to consider these together.

"Linguistic" in this sense is in the more generic meaning ("related to language") than that of research into the workings of language, but the latter also does have a bearing on localisation work. On the linguistic side there are several issues:

  • Standardisation of orthographies
  • Variation of language (dialects, varying degrees of interintelligibility)
  • Terminology

The technical issues include those encountered in translating software or content. This might involve certain aspects of internationalisation as well as features should provide for this.

Strategic and Organisational

The main question under this heading is: What are the strategic and organisational needs of localisation efforts that need to be addressed for them to succeed? It was felt that this easily overlooked category is essential to successful localisation. Too often parallel efforts needlessly duplicate effort, initiatives begun with high hopes lack the vision to follow through, and the problem of lack of resources becomes a block. Additionally, it is important that these efforts find ways to gain support in building a favourable environment for localisation. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss and plan how localisation projects can more effectively organise their efforts and coordinate with each other.

Some of the issues in this category were felt to be common to FOSS work in general.

Needs as Identified at the PanAfrican Localisation Workshop

In the Casablanca workshop, an effort was made to census participants' experience and opinions about the challenges they faced, the successes they had, and what they felt they needed in order to be able to do more and better. The method used was brainstorming in small groups, reporting to the larger group in such a way that each unique idea was ultimately put on a separate card. Then as a group we physically put the cards on a blank wall, rearranging as we went in order to find what seemed to be natural categories. The advantage of this approach of course was These ultimately turned out to be five in number:

  • Government – relations, importance of support
  • Peer networking – need for and rewards of collaboration in FOSS localisation
  • Standardisation – important in several categories, such as orthographies
  • Technical issues – aspects of the localisation work itself
  • Sociolinguistic issues – language specific issues encountered in localisation

Much of the discussion related to OpenOffice and basic user interfaces, though various other technologies were also mentioned.

Comparison and Summary

In comparing the two lists there are several remarks.

First, it is interesting that one of the strengths and interests in the localisation area is what we discussed in the Casablanca workshop as "peer networking."

It was a bit of a surprise that the localisers in Casablanca did not address any strategic or organisational issues. However this may either be a function of relative ease of localisation projects at this phase of their existence, before such issues would arise, or be a topic more of interest from an outside view. On the other hand, the peer networking function is one that

Some critiques point out the lack of long-term strategies and marketing. How can one provide this kind of perspective for localisation efforts, policy makers, and donor initiatives?

8.3 Analysis of Needs from a PanAfrican Perspective

While localisers' perspectives are centrally important, it is also necessary to consider a range of short- to long-term needs from a strategic viewpoint. In effect, localisers are experts in their own contexts, but not always attuned to larger and longer-term connections in the localisation ecology. Therefore there is also a place for analysis of needs from "above" in the sense of an overview that takes in to account connections and commonalities among local efforts that are not readily apparent at their level, and also longer term trends that even a workshop of localisers might not identify.

Some of these include higher level support, from intergovernmental and donor organisations, better means for communication so that efforts build on each other rather than duplicating effort in ignorance of each other, and large-scale tools such as databases of information and contacts.

The issue of cross-border languages is one of these strategic issues. At one time conferences on this topic were often sponsored by UNESCO. Presently the need is driven by the potential for localising ICT, so there are various interAfrican and international entities that can sponsor this. However, localisers and their initiatives can initiate contact, and in some cases the need may be as simple as a catalyst or introduction in order to favour cross-border work.

It would be helpful from a planning perspective to have a cross indexing of potentials for localisation in particular languages and the evolving local and regional situations with regard to connectivity, physical access to ICT, etc. – in effect "mapping" the localisation ecology in geographic space. Specifically this would begin to permit the evaluation of key areas of need and highest impact of localisation.

This kind of strategic approach to localisation is lacking and by the nature of local efforts is not likely to be done without some outside help. It is with this in mind that the PanAfrican Localisation project was founded and that its internet presence (website and lists) is being developed.

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