Internet Access, Yes, But in my Mother Language!

July 3, 2014


The range of vernacular languages in Gabon. Source: Association for the Sustainability and Learning of Gabonese Languages 

Story Highlights
  • At least 80 percent of all content on the Internet is in one of 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian, and Korean.
  • A number of information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives are targeting Gabon's preservation of linguistic and cultural identity, as daily communications are still largely in vernacular languages.
  • Using vernacular languages on the Internet and in technology changes the way users experience and utilize ICTs in business, household and social affairs.

Linguistic and cultural diversity are at risk. It is estimated that nearly half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages could die out by the end of the century, with 96 percent of these languages spoken by a mere four percent of the world’s population.

A vernacular language is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, region or country that is more the language of ordinary speech than formal writing. Every day, a dozen of these vernacular languages disappear. This is alarming, because language plays a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, and is also critical in strengthening cooperation, building inclusive knowledge societies, preserving cultural heritage and providing quality education for all.

Unfortunately, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), especially Internet, have so far contributed to the trend towards reduced linguistic diversity, although international organizations such as UNESCO and the Broadband Commission for Digital Development regularly advocate the need for a greater presence of content in local languages.

The online dominance of certain languages is undeniable: at least 80 percent of all content on the Internet is in one of 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian, and Korean. African languages are represented on the Internet, but not as a widespread communication medium and often with minimum content in the languages themselves.

So how do we develop a knowledge society based on local content creation and distribution of such content, both locally and globally using broadband services? A workshop held on May 13 in Libreville, Gabon, as an initiative of the country’s Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Post, helped provide some answers.

With a gross national income per capita estimated at US$10,040 in 2012, Gabon is a middle-income country that is committed to diversifying its economy, largely based on the exploitation of natural resources (especially oil). This favorable economic situation has allowed Gabon to develop an ambitious strategy of developing its digital economy, simultaneously deploying electronic communications infrastructure, as well as content, services and applications, including in vernacular languages.

In Gabon, as in most African countries, daily communications are still largely in the vernacular languages in rural areas, which leads to a phenomenon of Internet underutilization by rural households. This fact remains even though the Internet and ICT in general provide a platform to communicate, learn, manage and disseminate knowledge, especially in the areas of agriculture, education and health in order to promote sustainable socio-economic development. By contrast, vernacular languages are experiencing a significant decline in urban areas, and – in the case of Gabon and many other francophone African countries – are increasingly superseded by French.

A number of initiatives are already targeting the preservation of the linguistic and cultural identity of Gabon. Gabonese radio and television channels have some broadcasts in vernacular languages. The University Laboratory of Oral Traditions and Contemporary Dynamics (LUTO-DC) in the Omar Bongo University and the Raponda-Walker Foundation have been striving for 20 years to preserve, collect and standardize the language and oral traditions of Gabon. Between them, they have grouped 60 of Gabon’s vernacular languages into 10 groups, which facilitates content development.

Other organizations have specialized in learning in these languages. The Rapondo-Walker Foundation has focused its efforts on schools. The Innovation Box (la Boîte à Innovations - BAI) has made strides on an e-learning platform that uses sound, video and text to improve literacy and bring ICT to the most vulnerable populations in 12 languages of West Africa, including three Gabonese vernacular languages. In particular, BAI’s experience shows that, when users are trained to use ICTs in the language they use in their daily activities (business, household and social affairs), they are more responsible in the management of their vocational training and, in some cases, even buy a computer. 

" In Gabon, as in most African countries, daily communications are still largely in the vernacular languages in rural areas, which leads to a phenomenon of Internet underutilization by rural households – even though the Internet provides a platform to communicate, learn, manage and disseminate knowledge related to agriculture, education and health. "

However, successful ICT projects in local languages depend on complex and interrelated sociological and technical factors, and there is not (yet) a standard theoretical framework to tackle these issues. In a policy note that was presented in Libreville, a team of World Bank ICT experts proposed four key recommendations for Gabon’s action plan to simultaneously foster the development of ICT applications and services and the use of vernacular languages:

1. Make broadband access available to population that communication in vernacular languages;
2. Make ICT applications proposed in key areas of development (agriculture, education, health) available – at least partially – in vernacular languages;
3. Bring ICT usage training to rural populations, as much as possible in combination with literacy programs; and
4. Promote the development and use of training materials in vernacular languages which are ICT-based.

A key point of this action plan is to focus on applications in vernacular languages – based on the needs of target audiences – through piggybacking on larger applications, for example e-government, rather than through developing specific applications in vernacular languages. The challenge for local developers, such as those formed by the African Institute of Computer Science (Institut Africain d’Informatique - IAI), is to use their understanding of the local culture and an ability to quickly identify the people concerned with relevant content, including those applications that may have a broader geographic scope (some local languages are indeed spoken in several countries in the sub-region).

Also, in this logic of cost reduction and provision of open tools for developers, an immediate result of the workshop has been the launch of the collaboration between the LUTO-DC, the Digital Campus (Campus numérique) and the IAI to digitize and make available online several databases of vernacular dictionaries.

A key lesson of the Libreville workshop is that, by using a vernacular language, there is a change in the way users experience ICT. There is also a sense of pride and equality with other countries to see one’s language on the Internet and have global access to materials in their mother tongue. Finally, there is a change of relation to knowledge and to technology, which transforms learners, as well as an incentive for the entrepreneurial spirit and to transmit this learning to others.