‘Language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.’ Ngugi wa Thiong’o – Decolonising the Mind (9)
This is part two of a blog post series focusing on language, how decolonisation is being enacted through focusing on indigenous languages, and the ICT initiatives that are facilitating. The last post featured the value of indigenous languages in rural learning, This post will cover the significance of indigenous languages for digital inclusion. Let’s get started.
75% of the world’s internet users are from the Global South[i], and yet the internet – through its language and imagery – is so white and western. With an internet penetration of 79%, Europe and North America is reaching saturation[ii]. The next one billion internet users will come from the Global South. Western languages take centre stage and indigenous languages are at the back. This is resulting in challenges with inclusivity, leading to a gap between those who can access the internet and those who cannot, i.e. digital divides.
Digital inclusion and why language matters
Digital divides reinforce existing inequalities that already impact marginalised people. As their ability to access, assess, apply information and take action online is limited, it prevents them from reaping the benefits of the internet[iii]. These include educational and social benefits but also enabling people to more fully exercise their human rights, such as freedom of speech and access to information. Digital inclusion is about the practical approaches that address the individual and community needs to bridge digital divides. Addressing factors such as availability of adequate ICT infrastructure, affordability of data and devices, digital literacy and availability of relevant content in indigenous languages facilitate digital inclusion.
The language one speaks affects how the internet is experienced, how to search and navigate; but also, search query responses change depending on one’s language[iv]. Therefore, those who can access and use the Internet in the dominant languages continue to benefit and indigenous language speakers are left behind. As covered in my last blog, language carries values through which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. If language is a marker of our identity, the dominance of western languages masks the wide diversity of identities online, and homogenises individuals with otherwise a rich and varied culture. This further highlights issues about homogenisation of knowledge, power and privilege: What is diffused on the internet is created by people with western perspectives, further strengthening the western hegemony.
Contributions centring indigenous languages
There are a number of efforts aiming to bridge the digital divide through empowering indigenous languages and voices on the internet. Earlier in the year, Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa ran a 5 week African language outreach campaign on Twitter. Topics included how threats to net neutrality marginalize digital content in African languages and the importance of and challenges for the right to access information in digital spaces in African languages. Localization Lab translates safety tools and tutorials that address security, privacy and anonymity online. They ensure that indigenous language activists have safe spaces for accessing information online. Whose Knowledge? is re-imagining and re-designing the internet through centring the knowledge of marginalized communities. Among their initiatives is the ‘Decolonise the Internet Languages’ conference about how to diversify the production of knowledge on the internet.
Whilst there is some speculation about which continent the next billion internet users will come from, they will most certainly come from the Global South. To curtail information inequality, and transform from divide to inclusion, efforts should focus on enhancing skills of users and the quality of their access. Empowering and centring Indigenous languages is a fundamental goal for bridging the unequal representation of knowledge, people and cultures.
Please share your thoughts about increasing inclusivity online. Have you tried accessing the Internet other languages besides English? What is your experience?
[iii] Heeks, R., (2017), Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Abingdon: Routledge.
[iv] Graham, M., and Zook, M., (2013), Augmented realities and uneven geographies: exploring the geolinguistic contours of the web, Environment and Planning A, 45, pp 77 – 99
Wa Thiong’o, N., (1986). Decolonising the Mind – The Politics of Language in African Literature, James Currey
Cinnamon, J. (2019) Data inequalities and why they matter for development, Information Technology for Development, August