Can we bridge the digital language divide?

Technology and access to information are making the world a better place for many, but what good is that information if you can’t read it?

Caught in the struggle between globalization and linguistic diversity, speakers of endangered and minority languages are struggling to bridge the digital language divide and reap the benefits of the Internet and all it has to offer.

Acess to technology is no longer the major problem; access to linguistically and culturally relevant content, however, is a growing problem. (Image by ITU Pictures on Flickr.com)

Probably once a week I Google a question that seems so stupid and obvious I’m embarrassed to ask my friends.

Gems from my recent search history include “will my radiator start a fire if there’s lots of dust on it”, “how long can you leave cooked chicken in the fridge before it goes bad”, and “how to make an appointment at the Dutch immigration service”.

Thankfully, sites like Wikipedia and Quora speak my language, meet me on my own cultural terms, and offer a wealth of material to compensate for my typically Millennial lack of domestic skills or basic life knowledge.

But that’s not true for everyone.

Where you and I turn to Google for everything from voter registration information to misdiagnosing our cold symptoms for an obscure tropical disease, the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t speak digitally dominant languages like English, French, Chinese, or Japanese are still cut off from benefiting from the rest of the world’s knowledge.

Since the rise of the Internet throughout the early 2000s, we’ve heard more and more about the ‘digital divide‘, the technological gap between the haves and have-nots that kept people in some of the world’s poorer and more remote regions from reaping the full benefits of the 21st century’s great information democratization.

In Bangladesh, Beyond Access and Save the Children are partnering to modernize library spaces, equip libraries with age and level-appropriate learning materials, and train librarians and ensure that they can lead these programs. Hopefully one day these children will consume and contribute digital content in their native language. (Image by Beyond Access on Flickr.com)

What we tend to hear about less is the language divide that coincides with it, and how we can close that divide.

Bridging the Digital Language Divide

Getting online has been shown time and time again to be one of the best ways to fight poverty across the world: it improves public health, increases educational outcomes, and equips citizens to better hold their governments accountable.

That said, you’d think the solution is simple: just wire every school in Burkina Faso with broadband and dump enough laptops over Peru and bam, no more poverty. But it turns out, lack of access to technology isn’t the only or even the biggest obstacle to getting marginalized communities across the world connected.

According to a study by GSMA, around 320 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and another 120 million in North Africa who are covered by mobile broadband don’t use it, commonly citing “lack of locally relevant content” as the main reason for their lack of Internet engagement. According to the GSMA report, this is because “content is not catering to the rich variety of cultures and languages across the continent.” In a region of the world where only 40% of people speak languages like English, French, and Portuguese that are popular on the Internet, this leaves the majority in the digital dark.

So we find ourselves in a situation in 2016 in which, despite the fact that many of the world’s poor can afford smartphones and live in areas with mobile data coverage, life-saving information is often all Greek to those who need it most.

If technology and infrastructure aren’t the solution, then what is?

Experts from across the developing world are building a consensus on bridging the divide, and it starts with personal, societal, economic, and technological investment in minority and indigenous languages.

Image by Beyond Access on Flickr.com

Investing in learning and literacy in marginalized languages

The long-term solution to closing the digital language divide is investing in the learning of and literacy in the endangered, indigenous, and minority languages that most people in multicultural, multilingual countries like India, Cameroon, and Bolivia speak at home.

In Nigeria, public schools typically use only English as the medium of instruction. Despite a famously successful six-year experiment with mother-tongue instruction in Nigeria in the 1970s, government inertia and a belief that English is the most important language for the global economy have stalled any changes in education in the country whose people speak over 500 different languages in their homes and communities.

This is a challenge first and foremost because children learn best in their mother tongue. In Nigeria, this policy not only affects overall educational outcomes, but also further exacerbates the digital language divide, creating “digital ghettos” and isolating linguistic communities that are already on the margin and stand the most to gain from increased availability of information.

Instead, Nigerian public officials could look to South Africa for a better model of multilingual education that privileges both the mother tongue and the national language. There, students typically spend their first three years of school learning in their mother tongue, switching to English in the fourth grade, and educational experts are pushing for a full six years of native language education. Coupled with initiatives supporting indigenous-language media, South Africa is making strides towards bridging its own digital language divide.

Where smart language policy and innovative technology meet, we’re starting to see some of the sturdiest bridges for crossing the digital language divide.

Transparent Language and 7000 Languages

While national governments are sometimes slow in reacting to linguistic needs, partnerships between civil society organizations and private tech companies can often work quickly and innovatively to help promote native language learning and literacy and close the digital language divide.

Spoken in Louisiana and Texas, Koasati has fewer than a few hundred speakers, less than 10 of whom are primary-school age children. You can learn Koasati in Transparent Language Online.

Transparent Language donates its technology via 7000 Languages, contributing to the preservation and promotion of marginalized and under-resourced languages. One such 7000 Languages partnership is with BasaBali, an organization fighting to promote Balinese, a minority language in Indonesia.

After a pilot project with 12 middle schools in the area of Den Pasar, the Balinese capital, the Department of Communication recommended that all schools in the area use the same technology to teach Balinese in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. Alongside classroom-based efforts like these, BasaBali is working to ensure that technology provides the Balinese language a “bridge to the future”: together with a team of linguists they’ve produced the BASAbaliWiki, a Balinese-Indonesian-English online dictionary that can be edited by members of the Balinese-speaking community.

The video-based Balinese conversation course in Transparent Language Online.

Projects like these can have great impact, but individual language learners and enthusiasts can also do their part towards bringing marginalized languages into the digital fold. Learners with an interest in development, anthropology, or language policy can also contribute towards closing the digital language divide in a few different ways:

The value in learning less commonly taught languages goes far beyond activism and preservation, but it’s an important first step in bridging the digital language divide and helping usher communities across the world into a prosperous 21st century. Take a look at the languages we offer in Transparent Language Online and start learning today!

This article was originally published on the Language News Blog by Jakob Gibbons of Globalect.