African Languages and IT: Localizing the Future?
Donald Osborn - Bisharat!

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There has been significant discussion on the technical dimension of the "digital divide" in Africa but much less on linguistic aspects. However, the latter have major implications for

  • Access to the technology, since many Africans do not speak the languages that dominate in information and communication technologies (ICT)
  • Unicode, in particular how it meets African language needs and its potential to facilitate use of the languages in ICT
  • The future of African languages themselves, since there is a question as to how successfully languages not used in ICT will survive in the "information society."

This paper surveys evolving African language use in ICT drawing on the author's experience working in this area. It considers impediments to greater African language use in ICT on the technical and sociolinguistic levels, as well as institutional and policy issues. These factors include: orthographies (history and current state, including provisions of the Unicode standard); lack of literacy in the languages; low status of the languages relative to official languages (also dominant in ICT); insufficient interaction of linguists and computer technicians; and low donor interest. The paper also highlights initiatives and trends tending to favor greater African language use on computers and the internet.

Several points emerge:

1. Importance of standardization in overlapping linguistic and technical areas, namely of orthographies, fonts, and input.

2. Need for more training and awareness of Unicode in the region

3. The potential for localization and other innovative use of ICTs to respond to Africaˆ‚s realities and needs.

4. Importance of literacy in African languages: some of the same dilemmas confronting publication and literacy efforts also affect efforts using ICT, though the latter may ultimately offer solutions.

5. An emerging role for African language speakers in the diaspora in use of their languages on the internet.