Second Wikimania report: The issue of language in Global South outreach

13 August, 2011 at 06:47 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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This is my second account of insights I have had following talks and discussions at Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel.

New terms, old problems

language variety on cadbury's choc

Language is knowledge (Image by nofrills via Flickr)

Just to make things clear, the term “Global South” is equivalent to what we used to call “developing countries” or “the third world”. While I can understand why people are uncomfortable with the former terms, the new term seems too ambiguous. Imagine that we look for an alternative term for “ice”. First we come up with “water in a bad temperature state”, but who said cold is bad? So, we replace that term with “potentially liquid water”. When we realize that this term also implies the wrong attitude, we decide to call it “thing to be found at the South Pole”. So be it.

Why add a language barrier to a technological gap?

During the discussions about how to reach out to people in the Global South countries (particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent), the question of language kept rising. Many people argued that we must provide people with free content materials in their own mother tongues. While this sounds very reasonable, especially for someone like me who comes from a culture that fosters the use of local languages, people in the Global South seem to prefer a different approach. As far as I could understand from people who had been to these countries, and from occasional talks with people who live there, the idea of having education in a European language (usually English, French or Portuguese, depending on the country’s history) rather than in one mother’s tongue is taken to be the right strategy, as it has many advantages. In a multilingual country it ensures one egalitarian educational system to all children, and it provides them with a nationwide lingua franca. It helps them to seek higher education in the universities of Europe an North America, or at least allow them to access to the educational and cultural material provided by these countries, which, like it or not, are today the center of the world.

In fact, the experience that Wikimedia Israel and the Ben Gurion University‘s Africa Center had in Santchou, Cameroon, proves exactly that – while there is a technological gap which people from Cameroon, Israel, Switzerland and other countries strove to level by providing offline versions of Wikipedia, there was no language barrier, as school children and adults can easily read the French-language Wikipedia, which has been enjoying contributions from Francophones all over the world. Why have extra barriers, when you are already coping with a serious one?

Writing in your own language is sharing linguistic knowledge with the rest of the world

And yet, developing free content projects (e.g. Wikipedias and Wiktionaries, and also non-Wikimedia free-content projects) in African, Indic and other local  languages,  is by no means redundant. The flow of knowledge must be bidirectional from the “Global North” to the “Global South” but also vice versa. Language is knowledge. The very structure of a language, its vocabulary, its semantic fields, the way it constructs words and phrases, is an invaluable corpus of knowledge. People who speak lesser-known languages must write in these languages, because they have to share this human knowledge with the the people “up north”.

So, even if you are educated in a European language and happy with that, and even if you can do with the English, French, Portuguese or Spanish Wikipedias or whatever other free-content project, you still have the obligation to share your linguistic knowledge with the rest of mankind, and the simplest way to do it is to write in your own native tongue.

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