22 Jul 2010

Are local languages marginalized in ICT4D?

ICT4D has created a platform for people to be embraced in knowledge. When e Sri Lanka project initiated , it helped creating a community of people who contributed to local language technology development. Due to the differences of local scripts, technologies designed for roman script like languages (English) were not directly usable for local languages. The ICT4D path of local language is not easy. It's not simply a matter of money money. Commitment is important success factor. It took several years to convince Microsoft to include Sinhala Language support in WindowsThe popular databases still not do not index local languages properly. The support for local languages is not guaranteed when someone buys software. Shilpa Sayura a Local Lanaguge e Learning project started in 2005, just getting consolidated. This could be common issue in over thousands of local language used across the world.

It can be thought as "fair enough" to for the technological developments to focus on English language as it is widely spread around the world and has a bigger market. However countries like Sri Lanka 95% of the people are not English users. In numbers 15 million people do not use English. They don't understand the meaning of "Global warming" or "HIV AIDS" or "Women Empowerment". 9 out of 10 have no idea of Millennium Goals. In rural societies it could be 10 out of 10. The messages are not reaching the bottom of the pyramid.

In Sri Lanka we are proud to have 50% of the population is using mobile phones. Unfortunately people only talk and send SMSs in local words written in English characters. It's good for asking "How are you ?" like expressions, But can not be considered as a way of giving, sharing and tranfering of knowledge. 90% of people can't find about weather, bus or train schedules as information is not available in local languages. In the open source world there is no open source mobile browser that supports local languages. It is a major proprietary domain. For Nokia, a Langauge spoken by 15 million people is a tiny market. Someone may consider it as fair enough in a shrinking global economic environment. In a Disney movie a wonderfull character named Horton says "A person is a person no mater how small they are". I belive in it. How small a community is a community what ever language they use. It's belived that over 10,000 languages used in the World, But how many of them are represented in ICT?

If we make an on-line scan for ICT4D projects implemented during fast 5 years, how many of them targeted local languages communities is valuable question to answer. If ICT4D social investments have not benefitted local language users at the bottom of the pyramid; can we consider the our achievements as success of ICT4D? One major barrier in local language technologies development is that, a person who is able to communicate in English, no longer has local language concerns and the people who need it are not able to communicate in English to the global investment decision makers who don't understand local languages. In my opinion at least 90% of the people in bottom of the pyramid are excluded from knowledge revolution enabled by ICT4D due to local language issues. This is also one major drawback of telecentre sustainability efforts too. Local lanaguage technology and content initiatives lacks sustainable support. It's more than one time development. It's a continues process of upgrading as technologies change.

Developing ICT infrastructure will spread hardware and access but not essaintial knowledge needs to make the change. This problem is not visible at higher levels and the details of the ground zero is lost as it moves up in decision ladder and most things important to bottom of the pyramid is dropped or considered unimportant at the summit.

There is a major gap between marginalized societies using local languages and communities in developed world as they are not able to communicate due to language barrier. Therefore knowledge society seems to fade at language barriers and becomes different versions of an illusion from both ends. If development efforts really aimed at grass roots, we are unable to exclude grass root languages. It may not be easy to solve this problem single handed for global development investments work for poor people. If inclusion is the global development agenda, it must begin serving the local needs rather than global wants. This seems a hypothesis in my experiences.

Education, Agriculture, Health, Economy like areas of rural life can be improved by emphasizing on development of local language technologies and knowledge and make them open for sharing across the developing world. It's time to look at ICT4D more openly on cases what doesn't fit in box rather than selecting what fits in pre-designed boxes. It's the only way to use ICT4D to improve rural societies who are not benefited with top ten global languages. Hence new ICT4D ideas should take local language as a multiplying factor for opening the global development in an effective manner.