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

9. Summary and Recommendations

Localisation in Africa is an emerging concern and process that is, or should ideally be, meeting the increasing deployment around the continent of a rapidly evolving set of ICTs?. In the preceding we have considered the need and environment for localisation, linguistic and technical backgrounds, recent and current localisation activities, and the needs of localisers and localisation efforts. This section summarises main themes and discusses some recommendations and suggestions.

The recommendations and suggestions are organized in several parts below (9.2-9.9):

  • Strategic Perspectives
  • Conferences and Workshops
  • Training and Public Education on Localisation
  • Information Resources and Networking
  • Languages, Policy and Planning
  • Basic Localisation and ICT Policy
  • Africa and ICT Standards for Localisation
  • Advanced Applications and Research

9.1 Major Themes

This document has dealt with a number of topics relating to localisation in African languages, including Arabic. Before enumerating recommendations and suggestions relating to those topics, it is worth pointing out some themes that emerge in the overall discussion. There are at least six:

  • The importance of African languages and localisation. This is obvious, as the premise of this project and document, however it bears restating. The importance of languages can be argued on many levels. The focus on supporting localisation of ICT? presupposes a general disposition on the part of governments and populations to preserve and develop African languages. Although it is recognised per the discussion above (4.2) that there may not be absolute unanimity on such a question in any language community, it is assumed that there is inevitably some interest that merits some response in the area of localisation. (The important roles of government are discussed below; see especially 9.2.)
  • Systems and connections. Localisation is done in an environment conditioned by other factors and processes, and the connections and influence among them. Sociolinguistics, various kinds of policy, technology internationalisation and standards, evolution of ICT? itself, and so on. The importance of understanding these systems – this environment – was the reason for introducing the concept of localisation ecology above (section 3) and for discussing at length the linguistic (section 4), technological (section 5), and internationalisation (section 6) factors. These and their interrelationships are of practical importance for the success and sustainability of localisation.
  • Specificity of information. In this report, including the appendices, there is an effort to move from generalities like "African languages" to specifics like which languages in what places, and to begin to account for particular realities found in each country. It is natural for a wide perspective like this PanAfrican one to look for trends and larger issues, but it is equally necessary to keep sight of very specific circumstances, needs, etc. This concern is also reflected in discussions of various factors in the localisation ecology (per the above) and past efforts. Through specificity there is greater clarity on both what the issues and needs are, and what the potentials might be. Overall, this approach informs current activities and the planning and prioritisation for future localisation work.
  • Communication. Sharing of information about activities, resources, etc., including peer networking is essential to the success of efforts on local levels that may lack the means and knowledge themselves to accomplish what they hope to do. The electronic forums discussed above (7.7) are of course but one tool. Conferences and workshops are also important. These will all be dealt with further, below.
  • Complementary importance of local prerogative and wider vision. Localisation depends on local initiative and knowledge, but these are seldom sufficient to achieve optimal ends. In some cases broader perspectives can facilitate local work, and indeed contribute to planning localisation in ways that benefit the most people and have the best chance of sustainable results. In other cases, broader views can inform local initiatives of realities that they may not be aware of. Both perspectives – local and wider – are necessary and indeed depend on each other (in a way analogous in some ways to the interrelationship of localisation and internationalisation – the first informs the latter, and the latter facilitates the former).
  • Vital role of African governments and intergovernmental organisations. Official institutions in Africa, whether on the country, regional, or continental level, occupy central positions in areas that affect localisation such as language, education, and technology policies. They also have the potential to directly support localisation, through practical means and by elaborating their vision of how multilingual computing can develop in their states and across the continent. Localisation in Africa without appropriate governmental and intergovernmental attention, is hobbled – there are certain policy roles that can only be handled by governments and others that need government involvement.

9.2 Strategic Perspectives

As a general approach, it may be useful to develop a phased, long-term strategy of emphasis on various aspects of ICT?: which ones should be localised in what languages, how, in what order, when, and with what people and support.

To a certain degree the initiative for localisation comes from local groups or projects, but it can be encouraged or catalysed from outside. Moreover, outside help can cultivate interest, offer guidance, or even make connections. For instance, isolated groups or focused projects working on related languages, or on the same language in different countries might be encouraged to combine efforts and share ideas, but may lack the vision or the connections to work in that direction. These are all related to the goals of the PanAfrican Localisation project.

A creative strategy for localisation of ICT? in African languages will also need to take account of unique aspects of the nature and distribution the languages and their current and evolving use in their respective societies. This is particularly the case for sub-Saharan Africa, as the predominately Arabophone north has been able to benefit from work in many countries on developing computing and internet in Arabic.

The interspersion of speakers of diverse languages, the use of different languages in different social and economic contexts, and the general multilingual nature of most African societies present a situation that is very different from the linguistic and sociocultural profiles of the more technically advanced countries. It is in some ways more comparable to the situation in multilingual South Asia, except that there the longer written traditions and larger speakership of most languages have made for an easier connection with ICT?. Africa will therefore have to create its own terms of reference with regards to language and technology (and all aspects of localisation ecology), and ultimately must develop its own approaches to technologies that respond to African sociolinguistic realities and socioeconomic aspirations.

It is not at all clear that the authorities charged with developing language policy and technical policy are ready to play this role. There is in some cases genuine interest (ACALAN, for instance, has promoted discussion of linguistic diversity on the internet), and in others some basic work (such as discussion of keyboard layouts for Ethiopic/Ge’ez in Ethiopia, and applied linguistic research such as by CASAS and NACALCO), but not apparently the capacity (or will?) to articulate the potential of multilingual ICT? in Africa or propose practical steps to accomplish it. If one looks at the record of follow through with regard to language policy proposals over the last several decades, the picture is not encouraging.

Nor, for that matter, are most major donors attuned to these realities or these needs. Development agencies by and large have not given much attention to African languages outside of some limited support in adult literacy and more recently in some bilingual education reforms, and localisation is much the same story.

Two immediate questions emerge from this consideration: how to promote interest in strategies and prospects for localisation, and how to develop capacity to develop and pursue them? From that, in turn, a third question is where the vision and expertise to respond to all of the above will come from?

It is possible that an African organisation will take the lead on this, perhaps in collaboration with a research organisation such as IDRC or an international body such as UNESCO. Cooperation between external agencies with the technical vision and African agencies with the policy mandate might be an ideal combination, but who will begin by formulating a comprehensive vision (as opposed to general declarations)?

One would hope to see African institutions of higher learning and research in the vanguard of proposing policies and devising strategies for envisioning futures and building skills, however this is not yet apparent. A possible hope is that African academics in northern universities along with other Africanist scholars. These academics and the institutions of which there are part, in partnership with African institutions may be able to positively influence the evolution of information technology for all languages in Africa.

Another hope is that local efforts to translate software can, in addition to achieving their ends and by so doing introducing dynamic new elements into the discourse on ICT? in Africa (that is, localised FOSS applications), can build momentum, encouraging some broader response. This would require some very good communication (see below, 9.5) as well as organisation.

Still another angle that should not be overlooked is the commercial sector. Microsoft in particular has invested in a certain amount of localisation of its software in Africa in collaboration with some government agencies in certain countries. This represents strategising on a different model, but one that may have lessons in terms of approaches. Cellphone companies that are providing for African language SMS are another category of company in the field. Last but definitely not least are African companies that are involved one way or another with localisation – even though their number is not large, they may represent a growth area. In the ideal situation one would hope for a general agreement on the importance of localisation among government agencies, donors, non-governmental organisations, and businesses involved in ICT? in Africa with the intent of facilitating it in as harmonised a way as possible.

A Fundamental Strategic Question

Before going on to discuss other recommendations and specific strategies, it is worth suggesting taking a moment to step back. On the part of governments it may be instructive to ask a fundamental question: Do we want these languages to continue to be viable for future generations?111 This may seem a very stark question at a time when where language extinction in Africa and worldwide is a common topic, but it serves to highlight the bottom-line issues at stake. An answer in the affirmative leads to the unfolding of other questions and indeed imperatives, some of which connect directly to the subject of localisation of ICT? and the need for coherent strategies to favour it.

9.3 Conferences and Workshops

Localisation in Africa involves several factors on one hand and various agencies, organisations and individuals on the other hand. As ICT? rapidly evolves, the need for coordinating efforts, planning development, and training people is ever present.

The inevitable workshops and conferences that will be held for such purposes should – aside from being sure to include all "stakeholders" – build on each others' work and not lose sight of certain important concerns. There is a reason for putting it this way: conferences and workshops are often organised with little or no reference to previous ones, and when there is reference, it is too often not accompanied by any substantive connection or building on previous efforts.

In that context one might propose first of all a strategic plan for localisation meetings. Such could be devised as a framework for reference by diverse organisations, and perhaps could be designed and implemented at a high level with participation of some key organisations and agencies. This would require some broad agreement on goals of localisation and the meetings, but should focus on a cumulative process rather than divining the outcomes of the process.

Four broad concerns related to localisation could benefit from coordinated series of meetings (listed below from the local level up):

  1. Localisation workshops, or technical workshops for software (and/or content) localisers. In addition to workshops such as the PanAfrican Localisation workshop in Casablanca and the "Africa Source" events organised by the non-governmental organization, Tactical Technology Collective, it would be useful to have regional, country-specific, and even language specific meetings, depending on the particular needs and interest in various parts of the continent. The purpose would be to train specialists in aspects or phases of the localisation process, from basics like Unicode and content creation, to creation of locales, to translation of diverse software applications, to follow-up issues in localisation, and advanced applications (concerning the latter, see below, 9.9).
  2. Application and adaptation of localisation for development ("digital divide") and business environments, including content development. Ultimately, one of the main purposes of localisation is to help in bridging the "digital divide," but exactly what that means in particular cases may need to be explored in meetings of localisers and development agencies. An interesting example is the internal process of the Open Knowledge Network, which attempts to use diverse languages and provide for sharing of information among various partner agencies. In the longer run, as more localised software is available and the potential for localising even specialised applications is more real, it is likely that broader interagency consideration of localisation in ICT4D contexts will be helpful and indeed necessary.
  3. Language issues and ICT. This category includes language planning "expert meetings" to deal with questions relating to how to handle multidialectal languages, cross-border languages, and language clusters in localisation and ICT? generally. Such meetings would be along the lines of the meetings facilitated by UNESCO in the 1960s and 1970s, or a smaller one in Okahandja, Namibia in 1996,112 but with the added context of ICT?. There is evident need for more deliberation on aspects of language use in computing and on the internet. In some cases there are basic matters such as orthographies or a nexus of issues concerning the relationship of dialects and closely related languages, and the possible selection of standardised versions for various kinds of work. In others, the representation of African languages in international standards such as ISO-639 and in locales? (CLDR) may be an issue. Terminology development and harmonisation may be a further matter for consideration. (See also 9.6 and 9.8, below.)
  4. Strategic planning for localisation in Africa. This category relates closely to the discussion above (9.2), dealing with visioning and planning for the broader picture over the long-term, on continental, regional and country levels as appropriate. Sessions concerning ICT? at the WSIS African planning meetings in Bamako in 2002 and Accra in 2005 were along these lines. This category could include meetings to plan other conferences and meetings in categories 1-3, above. It might also include less formal meetings among high-level decisionmakers.

In some cases such meetings can be organised as part of larger events or co-located with other meetings where one might hope to optimise participation and minimise extra travel. The topics and purposes of the meetings will vary according to the local, country, regional, and continental needs.

Geographic Scope and Strategy for Meetings

In addition to Africa-wide meetings, a PanAfrican strategy for conferences and workshops in the above areas would need to pay particular attention to facilitating and sponsoring workshops on national and regional levels. In fact, at this time it may be best to prioritise regional meetings, with secondary attention to periodic continent-wide meetings. Such regional meetings would also include some with specific working languages other than English – notably French, but also Arabic113 and Portuguese.

Giving localisers and others who are interested in African language computing and internet the chance to address issues particular to their circumstances and the languages they localise in would better support local efforts and also enrich periodic continentwide meetings. Maintaining communication on a PanAfrican basis can also be facilitated by use of email lists and websites, such as those set up by the PanAfrican Localisation project.

There has been discussion, for instance, about a possible conference on aspects of localisation in Nigeria, which could be a place to begin such efforts. Several different organisations are working on various aspects of localisation, from translating software, to developing keyboards, to text to speech software, to speech recognition, and perhaps other areas as well. These include efforts focusing on the three main languages in Nigeria, namely Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, with some notable efforts concerning other languages such as Ibibio.

Any such initial regional meeting in one part of Africa could provide experience for similar meetings in other parts of the continent.

Beyond Africa there has been discussion in IDRC of the possibility of a global conference on localisation, including Asia (notably the PAN Localisation Project), Africa, and perhaps indigenous communities of the Americas and Oceania. This level of meeting is productive in permitting wider exchanges and networking that expand local, regional, and continental networks.

9.4 Training and Public Education on Localisation

Education for localisation – that is, training of localisers and public education on localisation – is a set of concerns beyond workshops and the declarations often issued by such meetings.


In any field it is common to hear proposals for more training to build skills to enable people and teams to achieve certain ends. Localisation is no exception. Topics of trainings could vary, but as the case with planning workshops, attention should be given as to how these fit in a larger strategy of skill development and production of localisation.

In terms of intended beneficiaries, training for localisation can focus on people already involved in localisation initiatives, people who would like to be but have little but the motivation to begin with, and people who are in neither group but should know something about localisation (such as people planning ICT4D/E projects or setting up telecentres). In the course of organising the PanAfrican Localisation workshop in Casablanca, for instance, we received some requests inquiries from people interested in receiving training in aspects of localisation.

Investing in training for the future

Most discussion of localisation and meetings about localisation focuses on immediate projects and measurable results in the short to medium term. This is the case in terms of training for localisation (or related areas such as ICT4D) as much as it is for other goals.

When considering issues such as sustainability of localisation and the potential use of advanced ICTs? with African languages (on the latter, see below 9.9), a longer term need for high degrees of professional skills is apparent. Although it goes well beyond the aims of this project, it is worth calling for an investment in educating a generation of African experts in localisation and in language and computer science. These are interdisciplinary areas getting increased attention elsewhere in the world, but not so much in Africa. Furthermore, there are few Africans involved in discussing issues of internationalisation of ICT?, for instance, let alone involved in research on machine translation or speech recognition. Unless this is proactively addressed now by institutions and donors with the means to do so – providing scholarships, investing in research programs – Africa will remain handicapped over the long term in areas of multilingual ICT? in which it can arguably benefit and contribute the most.

Public education

The "public" in public education on localisation includes several groups: computer users in Africa in general, with particular attention to people working in some technical capacity but not connected formally with localisation, and also others occupying what might be called key decisionmaking positions within the localisation ecology (e.g., policymakers, educators, business people, etc.). Such an approach could help raise awareness about localisation generally, increase knowledge about specific aspects of ICT?, and even motivate action.

Public education can be accomplished through conventional public relations and development communications approaches. The internet – websites and mailing lists – can of course be used to advantage (see also 9.5, below). However it may also be useful to develop a kind of public education campaign to increase awareness and attract the attention of media in Africa.

One example would be the organisation of thematic "Years of Localisation in Africa" campaigns to focus attention on specific aspects of localisation and multilingual ICT? in Africa. The topics could include, for example, Unicode, locales, digitising texts for dissemination via the web, advanced applications, and so on. Suggested themes for the next two years follow:

  • "2007 Year of Unicode in Africa," which would be intended to raise awareness of and discussion about use of Unicode for African languages
  • "2008 Year of Locales for African Languages," which would be intended to encourage filing of

It is suggested to begin with Unicode as a topic needing attention that is more a matter of awareness than one requiring conferences and measurable output. Each year has a focus while the next year is being planned.

9.5 Information Resources and Networking

This part focuses on providing structures for information for localisation, the means for learning and discussion about localisation throughout the environment affecting localisation, and ways to facilitate and enhance peer networking among localisers themselves. In a sense these communication strategies might be called meta-strategies in that they are intended to help facilitate the development of, access to, modifications in, and implementation of other strategies discussed in this section.

Various resources are available online for localisers, about FOSS, and even about African languages. However there has been until now there is, with only a few exceptions, a lack of adequate resources focusing on localisation in African languages – in general or with regard to specific languages. The exceptions include some dedicated to Arabic, Ethiopic/Ge’ez, and a few others like the Translate.org.za (there being only a few exceptions to the latter). This indicates a need for web resources that target the needs of localisers and localisation in Africa.

As far as e-mail lists go, there are several dedicated to one or another aspect of localisation and multilingual ICT? in Africa (as discussed above, 7.7). Nevertheless, these are somewhat specialised and are divided into lists that use English or French as the working language.

Beyond such resources, which facilitate finding and exchanging information, are people and their networks. The cultivation and enhancement of localisation networks is a wider and one might say more dynamic need. Networks are served in many other ways as well, including for example meetings as discussed above. However the internet provides a ready way to maintain networks as well as enhancing communications.

Role and plan of the PanAfrican Localisation project

In response to this situation, one of the purposes of the PanAfrican Localisation project is the development of an online resource for African localisers. After consideration of different approaches, an approach including a website based on a wiki along with associated e-mail lists was adopted.

The website is intended to be the first place one goes to find information relating to localisation in a particular language or country, and a place with links to various relevant resources and tools. It targets not only localisers, but also others in positions to support localisation or promote multilingual ICT? as part of, for instance, "digital divide" projects. The site includes the following elements:

  • This document
  • Profiles (which double as appendices to the document) of
    • Major languages
    • Writing systems (alphabets)
    • Countries
    • Inter-African
    • Localisation resources
  • Wikigroup communities for each country (and potentially other groups)
  • Diverse other sections

The profiles are intended to offer information in the context of different perspectives on localisation. Languages (the core issue of localisation) cross borders, countries (where policies are made) include diverse languages, scripts (the form of text used in ICT?) are used for many languages and modified in various ways, various organisations deal with languages and localisation across the continent, and there are a range of general localisation resources that are useful for African localisation. These are detailed the Appendices (section 11).

Wikigroups are an attempt first of all to involve localisation and multilingual ICT? groups on country levels. This is a longterm strategy for hosting flexible-format local web spaces that are independent linked to and searchable from the larger website. Other kinds of specialised wikigroups relating to African languages and localisation will be added later.

The project has initiated three new e-mail lists?, one each for three working languages – English, French, and Portuguese – to facilitate communication and networking among localisers across the continent. These are linked to each other by a machine translation program intended to make the system truly PanAfrican (even if the translation results are not perfect). It is hoped also to link these and other resources via RSS to the relevant wikigroups.

Taken as a whole these are intended to fulfil needs for information resources and networking for localisation. These will certainly evolve, and link to new resources addressing particular localisation issues and needs in Africa, and together promote a dynamic evolving space for African language localisation.

9.6 Languages, Policy and Planning

This part deals with language policy and planning as they relate to localisation. Any discussion in this area necessitates consideration of countries – the level at which policies are made and planning done – as well as the languages themselves.

Localisation and African Linguistic Diversity

A strategy to support localisation in Africa must begin with a sense of the scope of the project, and awareness of where that support might go beyond focus on existing initiatives to engage in a proactive approach of outreach to potential localisers where there are yet no initiatives. This is one of the reasons that Appendix I (Section 12.1) lists what can be considered the major African languages and Appendix III (Section 12.3) lists all the countries in Africa. What is named is not as easily overlooked, and by starting with some specifics there is a more tangible place to build from.

With limited means available for localisaiton, it will be necessary to prioritise efforts and resources, whether on the language, country or broader levels. This may tend to disfavour less widely spoken languages including endangered languages, at least in the short-term. It may be that the best strategy for languages not prioritised for software development, at least in the beginning, is to incorporate spellcheckers for them into software that is localised for more widely spoken languages. That sort of interim solution is already a significant challenge for languages with relatively few speakers and resources, but arguably a realistic goal. Also, since Africa’s linguistic diversity lives in multilingual contexts, such combinations with more and less widely spoken languages might actually be natural.

Standardisation of Languages and Orthographies

A related issue both within individual African counties themselves and among neighbouring countries which share the same (cross-border) language(s), is that of standardisation. In some cases, where there are dialect variations, it might be helpful for localisation (and eventual computer users) for standard versions, or at least orthographies and terminologies, to be identified or developed where they are not already chosen. Generally this is something undertaken by governments (such as in Uganda for Runyakitara), but in at least one case (N’Ko for Manding languages) efforts to develop a standard are local.

As discussed in a previous section (4.3), standardised orthography is an issue that is not settled for all languages in Africa, even in the case of some languages with more established writing systems. This has been a recurrent issue in Africa since independence, along with the harmonisation of transcriptions for related languages, languages that cross borders, and diverse languages within each country. These issues must receive continued attention and resolution so that the languages can be consistently used in all text-based computer applications and content.

Educational Policy

Recommendations concerning educational policy with respect to languages of instruction and the teaching of African languages in schools are beyond the purview of this report. However it is clear that localisation and the use of African languages in education can benefit each other. Installing localised software on computers that are installed in schools would offer students different ways to learn about and interface with the technology. Pluriliterate students can more effectively interact with and contribute to building a rich array of multilingual African web content and software.

Externally funded ICT4E projects like the OLPC project, can also have a positive impact on localisation and language in education programming.

Beyond schools, the potential for use of ICT? in basic literacy and in first language literacy of those educated only in ELWCs can be explored.

It is also worth exploring possible connections between all of the above and the development of various online dictionaries and second-language instructional modules. Could African language programs at Northern universities collaborate with applied linguistics and educational programs in Africa to create online language resources for Africans?

9.7 Basic Localisation, and ICT Policies and Programs

Another main support for all aspects of localisation could be through other activities relating to ICT?, notably country-level ICT? policies but also FOSS user groups and even development projects.

Country ICT Policies

Country-level policies for development of ICT, such as NICIs, could make more specific mention and commitment to localisation. This could include moral or material support for: development of web content in indigenous languages; translation of software; participation in elaboration of standards that affect use of the languages; and training relating to language and computing.

Governments obviously have enormous potential influence by their example – for instance the languages in which their content is posted (South Africa is an interesting example in this regard, though some other governments have indigenous language content). Also, governments could insist that foreign-funded ICT4D projects take into account the multilingual nature of the populations in choice of software, fonts and keyboards for computers they deploy.

Role of International Development Organisations

A number of donor agencies and other organisations that are involved in international development have taken an interest in various ICT4D and ICT4E projects. Although a few such organisations such as IDRC, OneWorld, and Geekcorps have paid attention to aspects of localisation in web content and computer interfaces, this is an area in which such organisations are well-placed to do a lot more. Several are listed below:

  • Equipping systems in telecentres (per the discussion in section 2 about types of localisation)
  • Diverse language content
  • Designing localised web content to be printable for community reading in locations distant from telecentres
  • Seeking collaboration with localisation groups concerning localised software where they exist in beneficiary countries
  • Supporting new localisation efforts.

Bringing FOSS Communities More Fully Into Localisation

The oft-mentioned distance between linguists and computer technicians risks being duplicated between some FOSS user groups and localisers in Africa. It is a good time to build bridges. To that end it is worth proposing a program of identification and contact of FOSS groups in various countries about their interest in developing agendae for localisation.

Linking Different Localisation Currents: FOSS, ICT4D, and Commercial

There seem to be two or three different levels in operation relating to localisation that should be linked. One is localisation focused mainly on the language communities within specific countries or groups of countries – this is the level on which the PanAfrican Localisation project and other localisation initiatives has tended to operate. In general these are local non-governmental initiatives, but any government-sponsored localisation

Another is localisation in specific development contexts, such as what the Open Knowledge Network project has done in some parts of Africa as well as south Asia. The two overlap in Africa itself but the former focuses on general FOSS applications and also may involve Africans overseas, while the latter involves development agencies designing and implementing ICT4D projects. Both in principle should involve linguists and computer technicians. These together could be linked in a way that promotes cross-fertilisation of ideas and fruitful collaboration.

A third level is that of business and commercial interests. On the one hand there are international proprietary software firms, notably Microsoft, which are interested in localisation in certain markets, and also African software companies. On the other hand, there are firms in other industries that may look at localisation of content or interfaces.

Linking the latter with the previous two might present challenges in terms of reconciling approaches, but also has the potential to benefit localisation in unforeseen ways. For broader impact and longer term sustainability of localisation, seeking ways for coordination of or cooperation among diverse groups with common interest in localisation might be very positive for African languages.

FOSS, Proprietary Software, and Limited Localisation Resources

In ICT? and language work as much as in other domains, Africa tends to have limited resources. Another way of linking different currents of localisation might be to promote a space of collaboration among proprietary and open source efforts on certain basic resources for localisation in minority languages – a kind of "historic compromise." The idea would be to favour development of resources like dictionaries in ways that are most likely to benefit the most people as early as possible. Such an agreement would also be intended to favour the least widely spoken languages.

Mobile Technology

The rapid spread of cellphones in Africa and the miniaturisation of computer technology is beginning to open a new dimension of localisation, and as such deserves to be considered in policies and programs for localisation. This technology is discussed further below (9.9).

9.8 Africa and ICT Standards for Localisation

As discussed in previous sections, standards are among the requirements for success in localisation. They facilitate use of diverse languages in ICT?, translation of software, and or production and use of linguistically diverse web content. Recommendations concerning language-related standards were mentioned above (9.6). This part focuses on some technology-related standards affecting localisation and multilingual computing in Africa, ranging from keyboards to coding.

A general recommendation here is for greater involvement by governments and interAfrican agencies in all levels of standards making that affect localisation in African languages, including ISO and its relevant technical committees.

International Standards for Language and African Participation

The issue of ISO and African participation – or lack of it – in making standards for languages was brought up above (9.3). There is a need to find ways to facilitate and encourage African governments and standards bodies, as well as language and applied linguistics agencies, to take a more active interest in these issues. It is a key part of the localisation ecology, and until now it is being shaped almost entirely outside of Africa.

One particularly important issue is language coding under ISO-639 (see above, 6.3) – in some cases new codes are needed and another is the new elements of the standard in development (ISO-639-4-6). Without input from Africa and experts familiar with the realities of African languages and localisation, these needs may not be identified. A way should be found to analyse the system of codes as it applies to African languages and language groups in order to assure appropriate coverage for locales and diverse localisation needs.

Another international standard area of concern is Unicode. Although the character ranges already encoded for major scripts used in Africa are quite extensive, there may be additional characters needed. In addition, there are some minority scripts still unencoded. At the present time, however, there is almost no African representation in the standards process for this area, leaving the deliberations and decisions to other countries.


Locales are categorised by internationally standardised codes (language, country) and are fundamental to localisation. Yet there are still relatively few languages with locales. This is an area that needs not only more attention, but also coordination in the case of some language groups or "macrolanguages" where there are different code options. A campaign to increase the number of African language locales filed should be planned and coordinated if possible, with these concerns in mind.

Keyboard Standards for Africa

As discussed above (7.3), keyboard layouts for African language needs (and in one case a production keyboard for Nigerian languages) are getting increasing attention on local levels. The question arises as to how to favour some standardisation of layouts such as would benefit localisers and computer users. Keyboard layouts of course may be independent of other software, but they are also a consideration in software localisation and even keyboard manufacture.

Current localisation efforts addressing the issue of keyboards should begin to consider the larger and more long-term keyboard evolution issues, at least to the extent of familiarising themselves with other keyboard layouts already in existence in the same regions or countries, or for the same or similar languages. The general evolution of African keyboards might ideally be to accommodate multiple language usage in a particular country, group of countries, or region.

Another area is the interest in keyboard layouts as part of localising production software such as OpenOffice, or simply in facilitating input in African languages in non-localised software. How can these be coordinated? Such discussions might provide the basis for arriving at proposed standards.

At a higher policy level some thought needs to be given to who would have the authority to look at this kind of question and how they'll work – whether this be government agencies only, or linguist specialists, or commercial interests, or some combination of these. As part of this, again, it is important to look at what is already being done and used in diverse circumstances.

In developing keyboards for wider and long-term use, it is also essential to keep in mind some basic givens as well as the ISO-9995 guidelines. First is to understand the habits of computer users with regard to keyboard use. It is reasonable to assume that multilingual and pluriliterate people in Africa will use more than one language in their career of computer use, and perhaps during single sessions at a computer. Moreover, it is also important to remember that many computers will be used in public access points such as cybercafés and telecentres, meaning that multiple language preferences might need to be provided for at any single station. While these considerations may not seem so pressing at the moment, when almost all one sees is software and websites in ELWCs, once localised software and interactive content in African languages become more widely available, then the potential for diverse use of the technology is opened up. There is a need to anticipate these needs.

In this context, a dual focus is probably indicated: what is most effective and useful for the end users in particular situations, as just discussed, and an appropriate "massification" for the market, meaning how to, in a single keyboard satisfy the needs of as wide a usership as possible. In the end, successful keyboards for Africa must balance such criteria in appropriate measure.

Finally a forward looking strategy should also consider alternate means of input, from the implication of the emerging LED keyboards, to graphics tablets and also speech-to-text (the latter is considered below, 9.9).

9.9 Advanced Applications, Tools and Research

Localisation, as applied to software, most often refers to computer software for general use. It is important to also think beyond that definition to looking at localisation of specialised and advanced applications, development of software tools that let one do more with language, and research to develop these and advance the technology generally with regard to its use in and for African languages. In other words, some specialised and advanced uses of ICT? can be the object of localisation efforts and in some cases can facilitate other localisation efforts.

This part discusses some advanced technologies and suggestions to promote research on them.

Mobile technology

Mobile technology – facilitated by ongoing advances in miniaturisation – was discussed in previous sections (6.7, 7.6) and mentioned above (9.7) as an important new area for localisation and one that, at least as far as cellphones, is already quickly becoming important in Africa.

The potential for SMS, e-mail and other text in African languages from mobile devices, as well as the possible interfaces with voice (such as the Swahili TTS mentioned above), may require attention to localisation standards. In the case of complex scripts, issues not only of compatibility with what is used on computers, but also standards is raised.

What kind of links can and should there be between companies involved in localising cellphones and handhelds and the localisation of computer software? In the case of Microsoft, there may be some synergisms between their different efforts (computer and mobile softwara), but where does FOSS localisation fit in?

With increasing miniaturisation and innovation in handhelds, a key question is whether there is a need to discuss the evolution of mobile devices, a sector dominated by commercial interests, for African contexts? The commercial nature of the industry is not an issue, but the apparent lack of connection between it and other localisation efforts is worth examining. Moreover, the potential for localised software for handheld computers should be researched.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

GIS, which permits digital manipulation of data and map images, was discussed in previous sections (6.7, 7.6). It merits further mention as a possible priority technology for local development planning, analysis, and education that can be localised. It is being used as part of participatory development projects in various parts of the world including Africa, and the inevitability of increased use in Africa points to the potential for localisation.

Given that there is at least one good FOSS GIS program, it is worth suggesting that (1) computers in all community and school telecentres and government offices in Africa be equipped with this software and (2) a program of localisation of it into major African languages be launched.

As a first step, the possibility of localising the GRASS software should be explored immediately with Swahili localisers (such as the KiLinux group in Tanzania), the GRASS technicians, and possible funders.

GIS might also be a useful tool in language and localisation planning. Although we start by discussing localisation of GIS for various applications, it might turn out that, given issues of geographic distribution of speakers of various languages, GIS can also change how we discuss and plan for localisation.

Cutting-Edge Language Technologies

In African contexts – characterised as they are by multiple languages, traditions often described as more oral than written (in many cases written forms are not yet standardised), and low literacy and illiteracy – conventional uses of ICT? that focus almost exclusively on text will not take advantage of the many talents and ideas that naturally come forth in many languages that do not have a well-established written tradition. In addition, minority languages will be at a continued disadvantage – the spoken language will rarely be written, and the few recordings that exist may never be transcribed in a way accessible by native speakers.

New technologies in principle offer new potentialities for use of any language, and the languages in the most disadvantaged position stand to gain the most. Language and ICT policies need to take this aspect into consideration. This in turn requires clarity of vision and communication among policymakers, researchers, activists, and native-speaking communities.

Some of the most advanced technologies dealing with transformations of speech and text may, as paradoxical as it may seem, actually be the most appropriate for African languages. These include several discussed in previous sections (6.7, 7.6):

In addition to basic research, these areas could benefit from innovative thinking on long-term strategies for how to use and adapt such technologies to African realities.

Planning and Research

One idea would be to promote basic and applied research on the abovementioned areas in a long-term applied research program by a consortium of institutions in and outside of Africa. The philosophy would not be "catch up," but rather "go ahead" in the sense that ICT might find new and innovative uses in African contexts.

The idea would be to target, over the next decade or so, a range of cutting-edge technologies with specific aims. Some suggestions follow (note that for some of them, the basic issue of standardised orthography is important):

  • Enhance and diversify the limited number of existing TTS applications. This might involve the Local Language Speech Technology Initiative (LLSTI), among others
  • Develop STT programs for a select number of languages, and investigate ways of streamlining production of such software for a variety of languages, and making it reliable across dialect differences of languages without standard dialects.

Research the potential for various African language content and applications that do not rely primarily on text, namely audio-only and audio with images. The object would be not only to enhance soft access by people with poor literacy skills and the disabled, but also to explore new ways of interacting with and using the technology for all users in Africa and beyond. The possibility of involving Africa's oral history centres in such research should be considered.

  • Explore uses of translation software (machine translation and translation memory) for African languages, including those less widely spoken. For instance could translation memory banks be developed online for use in more than one location? Could the evolving range of approaches to machine translation be adapted to different language situations on the continent? How can this set of technologies address basic hurdles to translating materials into African languages, for instance for government services, education, and development?
  • Involve and train African linguists and computer scientists with the aim of empowering a new generation of African research in natural language processing and localisation (see also above, 9.4)
  • Link efforts for multilingual ICT? innovation with basic localisation and ICT4D/E, with the ultimate aim of facilitating a range of work in to serve African needs. This might involve developing new partnerships for both research and practice. One example might be localised GIS for rural development. Another might be distributing localised FOSS to new telecentres, and then involving them in feedback on performance and improvements.

Facilitating Other Kinds of Localisation

Mention was made in previous sections (5.5, 8.1) about software to facilitate the translation of software. In a similar way, some of the abovementioned applications can be used to facilitate localisation and creation of content in African languages. They may also find uses in localising software.

Where production of text in diverse languages is involved, the potential for use of translation software and STT to reduce the cost and time required to develop material for web content or even print (such as school materials) should be examined.

Finally, the use of well-established scanning technologies, with OCR adapted as necessary for extended Latin and non-Latin scripts, could permit digitizing a lot of published material on and in African languages for dissemination (with permission) to native-speaking communities via the web.

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