2010: The year of language

When it comes to web technology trends, there is typically one that is the sexiest one for that year. For example, “mobile” was the one for 2009.
I’m going to go out on what I feel to be a rather thick limb and say that 2010 is going to be the year of language. We’ve been seeing multi-lingual efforts grow by leaps and bounds over the past years and it seems that we’re getting to a point where most people I know say, “Hey, Google Translate doesn’t just simply translate literally, but it’s actually quite good.” The web has matured in the possibilities it allows in being able to cross the borders formed by language.
Nowhere is this more the case than in Africa. I see 2010 as a pivotal year in African languages getting online. Jimmy Wales wants more African languages in Wikipedia and there has been a good deal of push by Google in this department with their Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge that the Google Africa blog covered two weeks after it was over–how timely. But, the fact is that while all kinds of money and effort can be tossed at getting more African languages in to a digital format, if it doesn’t come from Africans, it’s not going to take root.
While a great many African languages were alphabetized in to Latin character sets a century ago by missionaries, it’s unfortunate to see that despite this, so many languages, while spoken, as not able to be read or written (Kiswahili and a handful of others are indeed working to buck this trend.) I would posit that while these alphabets exist, for the most part, they weren’t created by those speaking the languages from birth. They were an artificial, external force that didn’t stay around.
By comparison, a bit before the time that missionaries were traipsing about Africa, putting these historically oral languages to text, the Romantics in Europe were busy standardizing their languages. Pompeu Fabra, Vuk Karadžić, Ferenc Kazinczy, Alessandro Manzoni, and a slew of others were refining the languages that they had grown up with. But, instead of formalizing their languages in order to spread religion, they were doing so in order to spread the language.
It needs to be said that Amharic and other languages in Africa did indeed have established alphabets, but compatriots of these European Romantics were busily trouncing African languages through Colonialism. While enforcing English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish as lingua francas may have been practical (yet brashly inhumane) in the artificially created borders of a colony that may have had upwards of 100 or more languages and dialects, it set up a system that we still see in place today. This is especially in Anglophone or Francophone African countries where the local languages are spoken on familiar, yet not official terms. There have been strides made to try and stem this linguistic undertow of the last century as seen in Tanzania, Mali, and others, where education in the local languages is either being proudly enforced or at least investigated.
The problem in all of this is that spreading a language in an official capacity is expensive and English has (like it or not) become the business language of the world. Dictionaries are not cheap to print and institutions are not set up overnight, let alone the fact that you need people able to read and write in these languages in the first place who are in constantly dwindling numbers. Taking on the creation of language institutions for an entire country to function are not easy to propose, especially if there are several languages to consider.
So enters the internet and more importantly, the point where we are at with language on the web in 2010. Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others (such as this site) are all taking the fact seriously that any 21st century web business model now needs to include a multi-lingual environment to reach the maximum number of users.
Kiswahili has been the golden child in all of this, making use of many of these crowd-sourced technologies to bolster its online presence. While Google is trying to promote competitions, these linguistic efforts can be self-started and homegrown. In fact, to truly succeed, I think that they have to be, as people need to convince themselves first and everyone else second. Of course, many people will very well be asking, why bother?
Google doesn’t need to destroy all the data it can’t index because it’s going to reach a point where if it isn’t online, then it will disappear from our collective knowledge. We’re at a pretty crucial tipping point where all the languages that are going to be carried forward with us need to get online now, or they will simply cease to exist due to the original speakers dying off or a language like English or French supplanting them. While a monolingual culture may seem easier for people, the fact of the matter is that your identity is tied up in your language and if you lose your language, you lose your culture. The global corporations would love for us all to have the same language and buying habits, but I’m of the opinion that losing the languages and cultures which define us, we basically lose us.
So, let’s keep the languages jumping as this new decade takes on the digital preservation of all our languages.
2010: The year of language

3 Replies to “2010: The year of language”

  1. I am trying since years to involve more speakers of fula in the fula wikipedia but with almost no success. One obstacle I have often encountered when motivating people is that they were educated in french or english and therefore don’t have a written command of their mother tongue. Although the fula spelling is much easier than the french or english one, some will say: fula is difficult to write. Furthermore they is something like a vicious circle: people don’t read because nothing is written in their language and they don’t write because there are no readers. Let’s hope the circle can be broken one day.

  2. Yes, there’s been a huge problem with the chicken and the egg issue of these languages. I’d curious to know if anyone has dug in deeper the how Kiswahili has been successful. Is it that it because part of a nationalist platform and thus got institutionalized or was it something else? There’s a model there that I think has something to be observed, especially given the amount of English spoken in the regions where Kiswahili is spoken.

  3. Hi Miquel,
    did not say anything at the time, but I thinks this is a brilliant article. So much so that the New York Times appears to have picked up on this topic…

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