How language minorities in Africa could better access digital communication
Most of the world's communications are now digital, but smartphones, computers, Facebook and keyboards do not exist for all languages. People who do not have a dominant first language are therefore disadvantaged, so researchers have recommended ways technology companies could build more language-inclusive tools.
Language minority groups are often forced to either opt-out of digital communication, learn and use a different language, or find ways to represent their language using existing tools. None of these puts them on equal footing with dominant language groups.
This book chapter highlighted the communication difficulties of communities that do not have a dominant language as their first language. The author also suggested ways that tech companies could build solutions that aid language minority groups.
The author presented evidence from many sources. For example, they analysed how people used the Latin character set to represent their language. They also highlighted the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.
They gave examples where inadequate digital tools potentially led to deadly consequences. For instance when Ebola broke out in Liberia, they put up English safety posters. But, only 20% of the country speaks English. They might have saved many lives if they had put up posters in a combination of the other 31 languages spoken in Liberia.
Using characters from another language for your own is called transliteration. It allows people to use any digital tool that supports those characters. But, the spelling of transliterated text is not standardised. This makes it difficult to read and search through communication logs, and users have to battle spell checkers and auto-correct functions.
The author urged large tech companies to see it as their social responsibility to build tools for digitally disadvantaged communities. They suggested that anyone interested in creating digital tools should use common standards such as Unicode and Microsoft's Universal Shaping Engine. The author also called on governments to work with trusted third parties, such as the Script Encoding Initiative, and incentivise local tech companies to build tools for their communities.
This work is particularly relevant to Africa since many language minority groups live there.
This chapter in the book "Finding control: Visions for the Future Internet," addresses steps diverse stakeholders can take to build language equity in cyberspace. It draws on research on grassroots development of digital supports for Ethiopian and Eritrean languages written in the Ethiopic script, as well as the ongoing challenges that constrain the digital vitality of many languages across the globe.
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