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

3. Introducing "Localisation Ecology"

3.1 An ecological perspective of the environment for localisation

Localisation is one of the keys to bridging the digital divide - that is to increasing access to and relevance of ICT? - and is at the same time a process affected by various factors including those that define the digital divide and other divides that separate the more and less advantaged parts of the world. Understanding how these factors - individually or in combination - constrain or facilitate localisation initiatives is important both for profiling the actual state of localisation in Africa and for suggesting how to assure the sustainability of localisation projects. This paper proposes "localisation ecology" as a conceptual framework for accounting for these factors, their impact and their interaction, and introduces a model to facilitate its application.

Such an abstract framework, although it does not address the immediate and relatively straightforward tasks of translation of software or content, is nevertheless also intended to have practical utility in planning for longer term localisation projects. In terms of this survey document, the localisation ecology framework is further intended to provide a schema for ongoing evaluations of localisation in Africa. And beyond the framing question of the digital divide, this ecological model will hopefully also have utility in considering the impact of localisation on the so-called analogue divide.


"Ecology" - originally study of the interaction of organisms in the natural environment - is a concept that has gradually been applied more broadly, first in various models to describe interactions between human societies and the natural environment (human, social, cultural, landscape and political ecologies),12 and subsequently in more abstract senses to describe multifaceted processes in society and individual life (e.g., family ecology, cognition, and linguistic ecology).

This evolution and broader application of ecology as a conceptual tool is entirely appropriate, given its origins in holistic and systems thinking that emerged in the early 20th century.13 In this document, therefore, we will carry this process further to consider localisation ecology, but in so doing, find that other work provides a ready foundation.

In 1970, Einar Haugen proposed using the metaphor of ecology to understand the dynamics of languages and how these relate to other factors (Fill 2001). This ushered in a period in which the study of language ecology or linguistic ecology was popular. Although there have been fewer publications carrying one of these terms in recent years, it is accepted to analyze the situation of languages in relation to each other and various social factors.

The idea of applying the ecology concept to various aspects of use of ICT? and/or the digital divide, although obviously more recent, is also not new. For instance, Matwyshyn (2003) discusses the gender gap in use of technology in terms of human or social ecology. Another example is the website of World-Information.org which discusses "digital ecology" in terms of "information ecosystems" that aim at "understanding the production, distribution, storage, accessibility, ownership, selection and use of information in technologically determined environments."14

Our interest in developing a model of localisation ecology is in some ways anticipated by Robert Chaudenson's (1987, 2003) discussion of "integrated language management"15 in terms quite similar to those of ecology. His particular focus on the factors relating to choice of orthography is still relevant, and can be expanded to other technical and linguistic considerations from the point of view of language planning and management. (See also section 3.2 below.)

The ecology of localisation

Haugen's (2001 [1972]) original definition of language ecology serves as a good starting point for the purposes of this discussion: "the study of interactions between any given language and its environment."

Localisation is undertaken within specific contexts. The general rationales for localisation are discussed above. However, in specific countries or for specific languages, the motivations and hopes of localisers may address particular issues arising from conditions, needs, opportunities, and aspirations in their area. In addition, localisation is undertaken in an environment of socio-cultural, linguistic, policy and legal, educational, technological and economic factors and trends. The framework of localisation ecology ideally provides a way of accounting for factors and trends, as well as their potential interaction.

Localisation ecology, therefore, is first of all a way of understanding:

  • what the factors are that affect the potential for localisation and specific efforts to localise,
  • how these factors affect localisation (facilitate, limit, etc.), and
  • interaction among these factors in ways important to localisation.

It is important, however, to remember that localisation is not only affected by various factors, but is also a process that can introduce new dynamics into other spheres of activity, such as the use of ICT?, education, the development of languages, and the evolution of the sociolinguistic situation. So the model - like the real world situation it is intended to reflect - is thoroughly interactive.

When we consider a particular localisation effort, what we usually think of is a group of people or an organisation dealing with a range of specific tasks and needing some level of input of resources and perhaps advice and information to achieve them. In fact, the effort is dependent on other parts of what is actually a system. If this fact is not clear when the effort is launched, it is likely to become so later, as obstacles and new phases of localisation are encountered. The immediate tasks of localisation therefore are just part of the story and thus part of a range of concerns that need to be taken into account for successful and sustainable localisation initiatives.

The encoding of the Tifinagh script in Unicode, although not strictly speaking a localisation project, is a good case in point. A proposal to encode the script had not progressed beyond an initial draft for several years. Then, in 2003, when the Moroccan government decided to use Tifinagh in teaching the Tamazight (Berber) language in schools, this highlighted the need for the ability to use the script freely in computing and the internet, something that was hindered by reliance on legacy encodings. In effect, an education policy decision revived the effort to encode Tifinagh, and these two factors along with others may lead to localised content and software in the Tamazight language, which in turn will have other effects.

The interaction of factors might also be illustrated in this way: In cases where a government or a donor announce a project to establish rural telecentres (such as in Ghana recently16) or to supply computers to schools (such as in Rwanda recently17), the availability or not of localised software makes a big difference in the options of the project and what it can provide. Such programs in turn could provide impetus and resources for localisation.

Localising software also depends on some levels of standardisation of orthographies, terminology, and dictionaries, which in turn might benefit or not from government language policies as well as other institutional programs on local languages (e.g., at universities, literacy agencies, or non-governmental organisations such as SIL International), but which also might be catalyzed by localisation initiatives.

Such examples point to another important feature of such an approach to understanding the interaction of factors - scalability. Various decisions and actions relating to ICT? and/or localisation in Africa are taken on either more local or broader levels. The interaction for instance of donors and national governments on questions of ICT for development or education, for instance, affect the environment for interactions on more local levels. Conversely, the localisation of software in specific languages - a process that may involve only a few actors on a more local level - can impact discussion of language policy on national and regional levels, and even by international donors.

3.2 The "PLETES" model

There are a number of specific factors that that may be discussed in imagining a dynamic and scalable model of localisation ecology. In any ecological system one could say that everything is interrelated directly or indirectly, but for purposes of understanding and analysis it is helpful to identify or specify a limited number of key factors and relationships.

To do so, we may consider other models. Perhaps the closest model is that proposed by Chaudenson (2003) for language management. Even though it was not framed as an "ecology," it does illustrate the interrelationship of various factors in a decision relating to language management. The elements he mentions include the following aspects: linguistic, technical, psycholinguistic (individual reactions), economy (in the sense of economy of usage), and sociolinguistic. This particular example (Figure 1) is adapted from his presentation of its use for choice of an element of writing.

Fig. 1: Model of language management (Chaudenson 2003)

In any such model of interacting factors, per the above discussion, there is always a degree of simplification and a selection of aspects to emphasize in for the particular kind of situation to be described. Chaudenson focused on a relatively specific matter in which four aspects of linguistics are considered separately alongside the technical factor: aspects of the language itself, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and economy of use. Social dimensions - in this case how people interact with an element of orthography - are implied in other factors.

In the case of localisation ecology, we can start by suggesting that the fundamental factors are language, technology, and society or socio-cultural. The latter is, as in the Chaudenson model, sometimes considered as implied, but it merits attention as a separate category. Indeed, although the two factors of language and technology are the immediate focus of accomplishing the translation part of a localisation project, the social and cultural dimension is on the same level of importance when one considers the user dimensions and also the impact of localised technology on society.

Each of these three categories is very broad and includes subdivisions, but as such they are useful for highlighting their importance and interrelationships. It is possible for instance to develop ways of using a language on a computer without consideration of users (other than those working on the project), or to go about developing new systems for users without considering the dimension of languages (other than a dominant one - this we will see below in discussion of "digital divide" projects). The triangle shown in Figure 2 is a simple representation of these three factors and their interconnections.

Fig. 2: Three basic factors

We also know that other factors affect the potential and results of localisation - in effect one must "think outside the triangle." Among these factors, three emerge as especially important: policies and the process that produces them (politics); financing, markets and resource availability (economics); and the schooling and training of people in general skills such as literacy and in use of ICT? (education). By adding these three categories, we then have six headings for factors or groups of factors that can be considered as key to localisation:

  1. Political. Policies; decisionmaking processes and interplay of interests leading to those. Legal and licensing environment.
  2. Linguistic. This includes the linguistic situation of the country/region and aspects of the each language. How many languages are there? What is their distribution and speakership? Is there a standardised orthography for each language? Are there diverse dialects within a language?
  3. Economic. Standard of living, resources available for various kinds of business, public, social, and philanthropic investment. Individual/family income levels.
  4. Technological. Electricity and communications infrastructures, availability of computers (and types and kinds of operating systems), and internet connectivity. How do these factors differ across the territory of a country?
  5. Educational. Systems of education (formal, informal), school infrastructure.
  6. Socio-cultural. Demographics, social structure, ethnic groups, culture(s), popular and individual attitudes.

These six and the connections between and among them are what make the model a useful tool for understanding the environment for localisation. For convenience of reference, we may refer to it as the "PLETES" model (from the first letters of each of the six factors; see Figure 3). It is not intended to be definitive - there may be other ways to illustrate the same issues and/or the relationships among key factors - but it serves at least as a basis for discussion and a way of keeping the key factors in plain view during discussion.

Fig. 3: The "PLETES" model

A list of combinations of pairs of factors helps to show the coverage of this model. Some of these combinations may not directly affect the process of localisation, but the all of them in one way or another shape the environment for localisation, especially for projects undertaking localisation and their potential for sustainable results:

  • Language and society: Sociolinguistics and applied linguistics. Numbers of languages, distribution of speakers, attitudes about languages, how different languages are used in different situations and by different groups, languages in popular culture. Sociolinguistic factors are key in understanding the expressed and latent needs for localised interfaces and content, and people's reception of products of localisation.
  • Language and education: Literacy rates - in a multilingual context, by language. Literacy in first (spoken) languages is an important consideration in gauging the potential immediate usership of localised software. Language(s) of instruction in formal education systems, which will have an effect on literacy rates in those languages and indeed on the latters' development.
  • Language and politics: Language policy and planning, from legislation to implementation. Relates to official attitudes towards localisation, and also to matters such as standardisation of orthographies and government support for African language documentation, periodicals etc. that produce resources that can be used in aspects of localisation.
  • Language and technology: Several connections: how the technology supports the languages, including Unicode, keyboard layouts, potential for software localisation, advanced applications; how the languages support the technology - terminology; the translation part of localisation; computational linguistics.
  • Language and economics: Resources for language work (documentation, corpus development, terminology), economics of localisation.
  • Socio-cultural and education: Rates of school attendance and completion, who is educated, numbers of people with skills in particular areas. A factor in knowing what proportion of the population could actually take advantage of localised software.
  • Socio-cultural and political: Who makes the policies? What are the interests? May be important in understanding official attitudes to localisation and other matters such as language policy, and in turn suggests approaches to addressing those as needed.
  • Socio-cultural and technology: Who has physical access and rights to use the technology? Attitudes to technology. Impact of technology on culture and society.
  • Socio-cultural and economic: Fundamental and generally longstanding socioeconomic issues, including the foundations of the "analogue divide" that often parallels or conditions the "digital divide."
  • Education and politics: Educational policy.
  • Education and technology: Education about technology; technology in education. Efforts to put computers in schools or give laptops to children are also examples of cases where this is a primary dynamic.
  • Education and economics: Investment in education, budgets etc. (e.g., for schools, teacher training, materials development, books for students).
  • Technology and politics: ICT policy and planning, including NICI plans. Issues of licensing of software and intellectual property.
  • Economics and politics: Economic policy, including development, budget, and donor priorities.
  • Economics and technology: Economics of ICT?, including such issues as relative resources available for investment in ICTs?, attractiveness of outsourcing strategies, marketing of localised software, etc.

In the real world, of course, many factors interact. For instance sociolinguistic and technical factors contribute to popular impressions that ICT? can be used only in ELWCs and foreign languages. The educational system, by focusing on the official languages (ELWCs) to the exclusion or marginalisation of first languages, may reinforce this notion. Policies concerning language of instruction in schools and language policy generally mandate such approaches, and economic factors (other development priorities, budget realities, costs, etc.) limit the resources that can be devoted to first language instruction. The level of literacy in first languages, then, may be a factor in manifest demand for localised software.

Another example is how the distribution of speakers of different languages within a country or region compares with access to computers and connectivity (language, technology, society, with policy and economics also being relevant). This is a concern when thinking ahead to marketing localised software.

Yet another example, in the case of localisation of open-source software, is how economics and policies, as well as the quality of translations affect actual or potential competition with proprietary software.

A localisation effort might not actively consider of all these, nor have to address them, but they are part of the environment it works in. On a small level, it is certainly possible that motivated individuals and groups who have the necessary skills and at least a minimum of resources can begin and even bring to conclusion the translation of some software without deliberation over such factors. But as the goals become more ambitious and sustainable results are sought, the environment for localisation becomes an ever greater consideration, and a systematic way of looking at that environment becomes necessary.

3.3 Dynamic complexes within localisation ecology

In order to make sense of such a long array of connections, which becomes even more complex as one considers multiple factors, it is helpful to highlight several key relationships or complexes in the system. These include: language-technology-society; language policy and ICT? policy (intersections and non-intersections); and factors in sustainable localisation.


This is the triangle already introduced above (Fig. 2) within the larger PLETES model (Fig. 4). While other factors cannot be ignored, this triangle represents the core set of dynamics of localisation: sociolinguistics (the languages that people use and how), the connections between language and technology, and the interaction of people with the technology. On the one hand, localisation as translation (language-technology) involves attention to cultural dimensions of communication and on the other, information and communication technology is developed - and localised - for people (language-technology-sociocultural). Developing keyboard layouts for instance is more than just finding a way facilitate input of the characters used to write a language, but requires also consideration of user expectations and existing practice.18

Fig. 4: The three key factors of localisation in the PLETES model

Most localisation initiatives at least in their beginning are mainly focused on this set of concerns: technical process, localisation for language and cultural factors, and end users.

Applied linguistics, translation in localisation, social uses of technology

Another way to look at the the core set of dynamics as illustrated above is as three dynamics or specialisations that often operate independently one from another: applied linguistics and sociolinguistics; the translation part of localisation; and the social applications of technology. Each of these are illustrated in Figure 5. In effect, localisation brings together aspects of all three.

Fig. 5: Applied linguistics, translation in localisation, and social uses of ICT (l. to r.)

Language policy and ICT policy

The model can also be used to illustrate two main policy dynamics that relate to localisation. Policy may affect any or all of the main concerns of localisers, especially ICT policy of governments and donors and language policies of governments. Language policy arguably involves mainly politics, sociocultural concerns and of course language. Other factors are implicated as well, but these seem to be the main ones. Technology policy arguably has economic concerns at a high level, both in terms of investments required and hoped for returns. An example is efforts to increase connectivity through a project like the Leland Initiative - the technical issue of expanding the bandwidth available to certain African countries was accompanied by consideration of the regulatory environment for use of that bandwidth (policy and economic considerations). Here, too, other factors are important but (arguably) not to the same degree. The two are depicted in the PLETES model in Figure 6.

Fig. 6: Comparison of main concerns of language policy (left) and ICT policy (right)

If we take this depiction of key dynamics as representative of the priorities of ICT policymaking on the one hand, and language policymaking on the other, there seems to be little intersection of the two.

Localisation work in effect appears to fall between these two important policy concerns. This may signal a need to more effectively link ICT and language policy, perhaps in "localisation policy" frameworks in ways that highlight the missing connections on each side.

This apparent disjuncture between the main factors considered in each of the two types of policy and the processes and considerations involved in their formulation would seem to leave localisers with a fair amount of leeway in their activities as well as little support.

Dynamics of "digital divide" projects

Efforts to expand access to the technology arguably begin with the technology-sociocultural dimension (supplying computers and connections to communities), but quickly encounter or expand to other concerns in policy (regulations, relation to the country's priorities), economics (costs), and education (training, and often schools) (see Figure 7). As such they have significant overlap with the primary concerns of ICT? policy. However to the extent that language is not actively incorporated into their models - and many projects are not actively engaged in this issue - there is no overlap with some of the primary concerns of localisation or of language policy.

Fig. 7: "Digital Divide" Projects - from basic to more complex dynamics, without language

Dynamics of sustainable localisation

The concept of localisation ecology is also useful in considering the important issue of sustainability in localisation. This in turn is operative in two more or less sequential phases. The first part of sustainability may be termed as "follow-through," that is to complete a set of localisation projects (software translation), and the second as "follow-up," or marketing the localised software, dealing with the it in the field, responding to users' reactions and suggestions. Follow-through requires attention not only to technical and language dimensions but also to other factors, of which financial ones may be of the first importance (the resource flow necessary to sustain the initial effort becomes critical when early enthusiasm encounters various limitations). Follow-up in principle entails a lot of other issues as well, as it relates to communication and marketing, user skills, and even policies. Figure 8 shows the interrelationship of factors for sustainable localisation: (1) those basic to localisation, (2) in follow-through in a localisation project (adding the economic dimension), and (3) in follow-up, which may involve all dimensions.

By looking at it this way, it would seem that localisation initiatives must be prepared to acquire various skills of non-governmental or civil society organisations in order to achieve sustainable production and results.

Fig. 8: Localisation, Localisation follow-through, and Localisation follow-up (l. to r.)

3.4 Relevance to questions of ICT and localisation

The framework of "localisation ecology" relates such issues as mentioned above in a system that affects the potential and path of localisation efforts. On the one hand the concept and illustration of it by the PLETES model are abstractions, but on the other hand they can be used in planning long term and sustainable localisation efforts as a way of anticipating issues that may arise and identifying factors that can be important for the others that can be used to advantage.

Once one understands more fully that there are various factors affecting localisation, how then to use that knowledge? Perhaps this framework and the other contents of this report could be used in the drafting of materials and training workshops to enable localisation groups to proactively navigate the range of factors, influences and forces that affect the long term success of their efforts.

Localisation ecology may also be a way of imagining the impact of localisation itself - how does the localisation of a software application in a language affect the other relationships involved?

3.5 Localisation ecology and the "digital divide"

Localisation, and the broader agenda of bridging the "digital divide" of which we believe it is an indispensable part, involves several common factors. Discussion of the divide in terms of various contributing factors is not new, but use of an explicitly ecological framework including language would seem to be productive. Part of the problem with digital divide discussions is that language as a factor in access is often not taken fully into account, even though it is the basis for communication and the "coding" for knowledge.

It would further be of interest to integrate discussion of localisation more fully into discussions of the digital divide and efforts to bridge it, and to that end, the localisation ecology concept and its illustration in the PLETES model might be especially useful.

The following sections will highlight certain of these factors and interactions, and go into more detail. In the next two sections, first the language and sociolinguistic contexts will be discussed, followed by consideration of the technical and access contexts.

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