Using Citizen Media Tools to Promote Under-Represented Languages

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 to Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Conversation type: 
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Thank you for joining New Tactics, Rising Voices, Indigenous Tweets, and other practitioners for an online dialogue on Using Citizen Media Tools to Promote Under-Represented Languages*. The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regularly publishes an Atlas documenting and mapping more than 2,500 global languages that are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or extinct. UNESCO also estimates that of the 6,000 current languages spoken today, more than half will be extinct by the start of the next century, adding that "with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity will lose not only a cultural wealth, but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages."

These languages require urgent intervention.  In many remote locations, only a handful of speakers remain.  Many languages remain vulnerable due to the pressures of globalization.  At the same time, there is also a growing movement emerging where members of these communities are increasingly recognizing the great value in maintaining their native language despite internal and external pressures. Through the use of participatory citizen media and web 2.0 tools, these individuals are building communities around the common use of these under-represented languages. 

Projects like Indigenous Tweets and Blogs have been mapping users of an active indigenous language, making it easier to find one another and encouraging the work that they are doing.  But there are challenges – the digital divide impacts many of these communities and keyboards in minority languages are often unavailable.  In some cases, there are also cultural barriers in the use of indigenous languages in a public setting.  Despite these challenges, there are many examples of innovative approaches to preserving and promoting these languages through citizen media and web 2.0 tools.  Young leaders and "bridge" figures (often referred to individuals that can bridge two different cultures) are building a movement around the use, preservation and promotion of these languages in an online context.

*Under-represented languages include all those that are used infrequently in the context of computing and new media.  Many of these have small speaker populations and are endangered to one degree or another; others have strong speaking communities but face digital divide issues in trying to use their language online.


Why is a language underrepresented online?

A language may be underrepresented online if its speakers have difficulties in accessing the internet, if older generations who have mastered the languages and different scripts lack ICT knowledge, and if there is a lack of deliberate effort by younger generations to develop an online presence in the language. There may also exist a sense of guilt of excluding non-speakers from the conversation, especially by speakers of lesser known languages, so a “tipping point” must be found where people feel comfortable enough to let their language exist in a real or virtual space, and where people who speak other languages may actually feel pulled to learn that language.  The reason the first blogs were written primarily in English was to ensure they reached an audience. While this has been changing, interventions are needed to provide indepth news and create online content that is relevant and entertaining in under-represented languages to encourage people to communicate in them. Engaging groups that meet regularly based on similar interests may also be a good source of language revitalization.

Language shifts in a country that cause a majority to believe that one dominant language is sufficient for communication purposes can also result in underrepresentation of a language, especially online. To avoid the disappearance of non-majority languages, schools need to immerse children in their native language from early on, university degrees need to be offered in the languages and official documents made available in those languages. When developing online tools, some languages face a lack of technical terms to describe concepts and a lack of standardization of dialects within certain languages. Terms adopted from another language (neologisms) can be beneficial in overcoming this barrier if they adequately encapsulate the group’s views. Examples of solutions are the African Network for Localization, which works to empower Africans to participate online by providing them with translations of key terminology in their languages, and the Irish terminology board which coins new terms in all domains and publishes them online. A problem with translations though is that they are done by multilingual localizers who tend to push the target language to develop towards the source language (eg English).

Funding is another major problem in increasing the presence of certain languages online and volunteerism localizes what software and social media does exist in underrepresented languages. While it may be difficult to find people willing and able to dedicate to the cause, it may be the only sustainable approach to increasing the online presence of underrepresented languages.

What steps need to be taken before an underrepresented language is used online?

For many languages, specific technical barriers exist such as orthography, lack of technical translations and even a lack of a standard writing system in predominantly oral societies. There is also the issue of a mental block among teenagers who do not think there are other users online who are willing to respond in their language, and older generations who have almost no interest in the internet in the first place. Solutions put forward for languages having different scripts include re-mapping keys on a keyboard,  mapping syllabry characters to sequences of keystrokes, and developing texting menus for use on mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads.

For underrepresented languages, especially in Africa, it is necessary and even urgent to get applications and platforms translated into these languages, but finding people, volunteers, to do this is difficult. Next, Unicode is vital to using a language with technology because if the character set is not represented in the Unicode code range, major issues will arise when using email and posting on the web. When dealing with translations, localizers may come across other issues like "codes" and "locales" and when users of underrepresented languages, which may have a different code for each dialect, are confronted with these confusing issues they find it difficult to make their presence online. To get beyond these issues, technology should be localized to as many languages as possible and considerations made of making it independent of language. With programs such as Skype, computers are no longer just text-based medium simple applications could be created that do not rely on text and even standard procedures developed to archive spoken words on the web as is done with written text.

Above all, to revitalize a language or get it online requires people just starting to work on it, as much as they can and not wait for permission or policy to change. Creating Wikipedia pages is an easy and effective way of increasing a language’s presence. But the issue of large parts of the human population not having access to the internet has to be acknowledged. For this, open-source mobile platforms like FrontlineSMS or Freedom Fone can play an important role by taking advantage of the text audio elements of mobile phones that over 90% of the world population uses to bridge literacy and language barriers.

Shared stories

Dispersed communities, such as the Nishnaabe around the colonial Canada-USA border, have shown a discomfort in speaking their language because of previous subjugation, lack of job opportunities using the language, and other reasons. The elderly, who make up most of the first-speakers, reject ICT which further limits its spread. Attempts to address these challenges and heal the communities have included working with community members who are creative artists to advocate for healthy and culturally-appropriate ICT-based approaches to language revitalization. Another tactic has involved language games for the radio where listeners call in or send text messages to submit answers. In Australia, a podcast was created by indigenous Australians and successfully aired on local stations, with a significant audience who was reminded that Indigenous Australians are unique and have something special to offer. As radio is still arguably the best carrier of the human voice, a little push with local radio programs could compensate for the lack of online access.

It is also important to be realistic and accept any achievement as an improvement and that often there are not enough fluent speakers to generate enough interactivity on the web. Having said that, the web does offer some quick and cost-effective ways of getting out the positive message that the language still exists, is growing and is attracting a new audience who may(or may not) engage with traditional media forms. Facebook in particular has also been used to promote correct use of a language, to encourage dialogues on and adopt new words for ideas and materials. The challenge here remains to get writers to use the language’s orthography correctly.

While for many African languages it is an uphill battle to get people to participate online, examples from the Welsh can easily be followed - examples include a tweet aggregator that serves as a gateway to finding Welsh twitter users and giving the trending topics of the hour/day/week, or language blogs and podcast lists that give links to all blogs in that language.

What is important is that younger and older generations understand each other, and are open to accepting both the traditional and ways of speaking and communication, including the use of more modern technology such as the internet.

How do you build an online community committed to building this language online?

With under-represented languages that are still spoken by younger generations, citizen media tools are more readily used. When technical terms are lacking, they are easily adopted from another, more widespread language. While issues do arise around the standardization of technical terminology and monitoring of members’ demographics, the benefits of an online communities can also extend to off-line events and advertising within that community based on similar interests. Such in-person meet-ups can reinforce relationships and make it easier to work together online. It is also important to remember that it is not just minority languages that are underrepresented online. In the Philippines, the enforcement of Tagalog as the official language resulted in its dominance on cyberspace too, making it crucial for non-Tagalogs to make a deliberate effort to use and preserve their language both on and offline.

All over the world, social networks allow people to self-organize and affiliate in online communities that eliminate much administrative work. The Facebook application for example facilitates the translation of the interface into a number of languages and with the help of volunteers and votes on existing suggestions makes it possible for users to interact with the site in their own language. That said, many languages are not available for translation and Facebook does not appear to have plans to open up translation to new languages any time soon. Other social networking sites and blogs too are on the rise, with volunteer translators and active communities working to add new working languages to cyberspace.

What steps are needed for outreach and encouragement of the next generation?

Children love to be represented in all different kinds of media and with just basic skills and knowledge they are usually only limited by their own creativity. Outreach thus needs to be in schools where the biggest changes are needed to get the next generation to use what's out there in their own language. Once people start using software in one language they will always use it in that language and so these patterns of use need to be established early. The development and promotion of national languages in the use of software can be replicated from the Malian education system where almost 11 national languages, or mother tongues, are taught to first language speakers at school and only later are other languages introduced.

It is important to factor in the attitudes of parents and teachers in the way the younger generation relates to their own language. The adults have a certain idea of what their young people will grow up to be – what they "happen" to speak at home is one thing, while the language(s) which open the doors to colleges, conference rooms, offices and boardrooms is/are another. The next generation needs to see its language in the tools and content that it interacts with. Furthermore, organizations and develop programs that focus on health care, or poverty alleviation could develop a strong language maintenance ideology and, in so doing, get language maintenance back on the agenda, as it were, through the back door, in impoverished communities that have placed language maintenance low on their list of priorities. And with the development of software in national languages, companies are yet to set up a single one in countries like Mali. And with limited teaching materials in their mother tongue, resistance will remain until pedagogical shortcomings as well as institutional and administrative insufficiencies