Linguistic and cultural diversity in cyberspace

Irene Amodei, Sarah Webborn, Spanish translation Tahona
12 November 2006

"Language is the medium through which all information society exchanges occur. Language is a fundamental medium for all communication, the basis by which individuals and communities express themselves, whether in oral tradition or in written text." Measuring Linguistic Diversity on the Internet, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Montreal

If we agree with the position of the UNESCO that "digital education is an essential component of the transition to an inclusive information society", it is also clear that such education should fulfill the fundamental ethical criterion of respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, and therefore avoid the ethnocentrism and colonization implicit in technologies.

Should the digital world provide an enabling environment for as many languages as possible? Should it ensure true language digital inclusion? Some go even further and claim that the choice of communicating in one's mother tongue could be seen as a fundamental right. English is the worldwide lingua franca and comprises 72% of web pages, mostly due to the political and commercial orientation of telecommunication and computer companies and Internet governing authorities. Does the fact that English is dominant on the web mean uniformity is winning over diversity?

The debate on the future of languages on the Web is huge, controversial and far from being resolved. If someone points out the need for building navigation bridges between languages in the digital space, arguing, like Claudio Menezes, Senior Programme Specialist, that "on one hand, ICTs can be an important vehicle for communication among different linguistic communities; on the other hand, (they) can also be a factor for strengthening the marginalization of languages in the cyberspace," others reply that the preservation of endangered languages is not a problem ICTs have to deal with, because "a language that has little value is little used, and a little-used language has little value."

Linking ICT issues to the theme of cultural and linguistic diversity in order to build what UNESCO used to call an "inclusive information society where the richness of culture that diversity represents will be preserved" opens, however, perspectives and avenues for reflection that are relevant and frequently underestimated.

All these questions have been crucial in the setting up of the World Network for Linguistic Diversity (WNLD), an African initiative that started in the context of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis in November 2005. The mission of the WNLD is to value and promote linguistic diversity as a basis of the unity of human communication, involving in this ongoing process civil society, governments, international organizations, research centers, universities and media.

ICVolunteers has recently become the official secretariat of WNLD, together with the Casa de les Llengües of Catalunya in Barcelona. This new commitment witnesses the traditional involvement of ICVolunteers in facilitating and enhancing multilingualism. Mobilizing volunteer interpreters, translators and multilingual persons in non-profit conferences, training and events that otherwise would be monolingual, such as the International Master of Advanced Studies in Development at the Geneva University or the Landmine Conferences, ICVolunteers offers its proper contribution and its technical expertise to linguistic diversity.

Marcel Diki-Kidiri, coordinator of the WNLD Plan of Action, believes that "progress in technology makes it possible to invent a new architecture that would make Internet both inclusive and fully multilingual. That is the option made by the team of the Multilingual Technical Forum project, a WNLD task force." From Diki-Kidiri's point of view, the geographical fragmentation of the Internet is a fact, not a fatality. He points out that "One can choose to maintain the worldwide web unique either by building bridges between its fragments or by building a much more powerful concept of the Net as a distributed participative space based on the end user. In such a system, every user can use his or her own language to run its own relationship to the ICT world (e-mail, SMS, TV, phone, fax, web sites, blog, mailing lists, instant messages, data bases, etc...)." It would  be possible to use both technical solutions available for the sake of democracy, he believes.

During a conference held at the University of Vienna on 20 October 2006 Adama Samassékou, President of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) and President of ICVolunteers Federation, stressed the irreplaceable role that people's mother tongues have in assuring their empowerment as active citizens, enabling them to be true actors of their own development. He further underscored the importance of languages as a tool for development for Africa, where more than one third of the 6000 human languages are spoken. He urged African leaders to create an enabling environment "where populations have access to scientific and technological knowledge in a language they can actually understand." According to Mr. Samassékou, the Web constitutes a valuable tool both for documenting and actively using languages. Yet, only a few of the 2300 languages spoken in Africa are currently present on the Web. This is a fact that the information society can assume and accept or discuss and question.

One of the main missions of WNLD is precisely to bring some of these questions onto the development map and serve as a platform of exchange and facilitating body for language-related projects, such as the African web language survey, coordinated by the Language Observatory of Japan. In the context of this project, a workshop held from 26 to 28 June 2006 in Bamako, Mali, brought together researchers from Africa, Asia and Europe, exchanging their good practices related to language web tools for African languages. Both Francophone and non-Francophone researchers took part in the workshop. In order to enable them to exchange information, ICVolunteers-Mali mobilized interpreters working from and to English and French for the three-day event. One of the highlights of the seminar was the presentation of language software and tools developed by Dr. Virach Sornlertlamvanich of Thai Computational Linguistics Laboratory (TCL) ( These tools help document world languages and provide elements for computer-assisted translation of non-indo-European languages.

Events such as the one organized in Bamako will enable researchers to exchange information and best practices through the World Network on Linguistic Diversity. The first Plan of Action having been finalized, the Network is now preparing its calendar for 2007, further building the Network, especially also bringing in representatives from interested governments. The founding member organizations of the WNLD are convinced that the Internet can enhance rather than endanger languages used by a relatively small number of speakers. The aim of the Network is to help enhance the great potential the Internet offers for active language use, increasing, for example, the number of bilingual or multilingual sites and studying software products or computer solutions facilitating the writing of languages other then English and their regular and ongoing use in cyberspace.

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