Biblioteca: Digitizing Language in South Africa

by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day

In last month's column I explored search results in relation to the language in which a user composes a search string. Following up on this, I want to consider certain linguistic and cultural issues in accessing digital content in South Africa, a nation with eleven official languages.

Unlike certain multi-lingual countries such as Switzerland, whose languages are all widely translated and adapted to digital environments, some of South Africa's languages exist very minimally in digital form. Efforts to digitize them are underway, opening up a host of areas in which computing and language converge.

One such area is the digital preservation of language. Tunde Adegbola, speaking in Mark Lacey's article Computing Africa's Needs, argues that digital technology may be used to further the preservation of languages that are threatened with marginalization or even extinction. While none of South Africa's languages currently face extinction, the Language Technology page of the University of the Free State's Unit for Language Facilitation and Empowerment (ULFE) voices a concern that this might happen in the future. Digitization of language, it says, is one way to avoid this.

The prospects of digital language preservation address the underlying issue of promoting a national culture through language. South African president Thabo Mbeki has passionately called for the preservation of each South African language from a cultural standpoint, further arguing that "the nurturing of [South African nationhood] depends on our willingness to learn the languages of others, so that we in practice accord all our languages the same respect" (Mbeki, 1999). Mary Gilmartin argues (2004) in reaction to Mbeki's words that this vision is not becoming a reality. Rather, she says, in its capacity as the current dominant language in the world, English wields disproportionate influence over South African culture and communication. Not only does this add to the case for digitizing languages as a means of promoting multiculturalism, it also creates a language barrier for South Africans who don't speak English as their native tongue.

This affects the access to digital content afforded to the South African population, both linguistically and culturally. While many South Africans take on the challenge of learning English as a second language, efforts are also underway to develop translation tools using South African languages. Lacey reports that ULFE researchers are developing a digital translation system between English, Afrikaans and Southern Sotho, with plans to incorporate Xhosa, Venda, Tsonga and eventually other South African languages.

The linguistic challenges of digitizing South Africa also affect digital divide issues, such as education, regional development, and regional content. Rowan Philp's article Curiosity Cures the Knowledge Gap describes an experiment in informal education, in which the children of the town of Cwili taught others to use a computer. Philp does not, however, discuss any linguistic issues relating to the experiment, such as whether Cwili has one dominant local language or a mix of languages. By extension, he does not examine the possible need for translation between the language in which the computer is programmed to another language. This will be a non-issue in mono-lingual local cultures, but linguistic issues in computer education will grow in magnitude the further they spread across South Africa.

Sundeep Sahay and Chrisanthi Avgerou address regional development in Africa in their introduction to a 2002 issue of The Information Society. They note that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can positively affect development, particularly in local economies and administrations, but that the intellectual foundations underlying ICTs developed in industrialized nations do not necessarily reflect the intellectual composition of regional African communities. They argue accordingly that implementing local variations on existing technologies is the best solution to this problem. Local variations will at some point involve local languages. If the intellectual foundations of computer networks can vary by the context and/or language in which they were programmed, language will under some circumstances be involved in making the transition between an information system's original context and a local implementation of the system.

Increases in digital access and training will be of limited value if they are not accompanied by increases in community-level content, which involves developing content in different languages. Lacey posits that increasing content in African languages in cyberspace will get more Africans interested in connecting to the Internet. Not only would this increase the number of South African Internet users participating in information exchanges around the world, it would also increase the number of South Africans exchanging information within the country. From a development perspective in particular, this could offer a variety of benefits, ranging from increased e-commerce and e-business to greater amounts of health and cultural information accessible by larger sections of the population.

All of this makes the process of digitizing South Africa a challenging undertaking, but one that promises many rewards. The overarching result of digitizing content, from social and government services as well as cultural content, in each of the eleven languages may be an increased national integration and development, and awareness of the different cultures in South Africa. From a linguistic perspective, this is consistent with Mbeki's vision of linguistic equality across the nation.

  • Thabo Mbeki, "Protection and Promotion of Languages." Presidents and Prime Ministers, v8:4. Jul/Aug 1999.

  • Mary Gilmartin, "Language, Education, and the New South Africa." Tjidschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, v95:4. 2004.

  • Sundeep Sahay and Chrisanthi Avgerou, "Introduction to the Special Issue on Information and Communication Technologies in Developing Countries." The Information Society, v18. 2002.


Contact the Silverfish
Page last updated: December 7, 2004