Sunday, January 11, 2009

Overcoming Language Barriers in Use of ICT in Developing Nations

Internet beyond English language

There is no doubt that English is the most common language on the internet. According to Internet World Stats report, the top three languages on the internet are English, Chinese and Spanish. So, all other languages in the world together account for 43.2% of internet usage.

The developing nations are at one end battling poverty reduction initiatives and putting in place or improving basic educational infrastructure at the other end having to catch up with developed nations in the more advanced areas of educational ICT. Creating content in local language is therefore lower on the priority list. Educational content and software are not readily available in local languages. Further, familiarity with English language is even lower among the economically backward classes, widening the digital divide.

Language can therefore become a barrier to e-learning as it limits the ability to use the internet. How can it be overcome? Some countries are faced with a dilemma- focus on teaching the English language so as to encourage ICT usage or invest in creation of educational content, software and technical documentation in local languages. There is a fear that emphasis on English language education can hurt assimilation of local language and cultures among the youth in these countries. Only countries like India and Philippines extensively offer the option of English as a medium of instruction.

I have summarized some successful ICT strategies that focus on the language barrier, as reported by International Telecommunication Union (ICT Success Stories- Digital Education and Learning, 2006):

Initiatives to overcome the language barrier

Let’s explore initiatives that are already undertaken and those that can be to overcome the language barrier:

Reaching people living in remote locations is important as students in such locations are also unlikely to have access to qualified teachers. Radio and Television easily extend reach into rural areas. Among the successful ICT strategies listed earlier, three of them made use of radio. In India, a recently started educational channel delivered direct to home via satellite aims to provide audio in at least 2 local languages in addition to English.

VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals), a satellite communication system has been extensively utilized in the education sector in India. It is very useful in connecting remote locations.
To enable access to hardware- Keyboards in local language and software- user interfaces in local language need to be made available. This can pose a problem in some countries. India has over 20 local languages. In Thailand, the situation is more complicated with the Thai language character set requiring 90 different letters on keyboard compared to 66 for English.

Teacher support
Teachers’ inadequate English language competence has been reported as an obstacle to teachers’ learning of ICT according to Grinfields (1999) cited in Pelgrum & Law (2003)
Hence, documentation and training material for use of ICT has to be made available in local languages.

Hiring ICT trainers who can speak two or more languages would definitely benefit educational institutions. Countries that have common languages can pool their resources together. For instance, Tamil is taught in Singapore as well some states in southern India. Mandarin Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia are taught in Singapore and Malaysia. In India, with over 20 official languages, this should easy as people some states are familiar with 2 or more languages in addition to English.

It is important to ensure that all content relevant to education, especially primary education is available local in languages. Most easy to implement, is to digitize local language content that is available in traditional print/ audio or video format and make it accessible.

Increased emphasis on visual elements such as animations, images, 3D environments instead of traditional text will make the content easily portable across different languages and facilitate easy understanding of concepts.

Just as sub-titles are used in movies and television programs, they should be used for educational content such as videos and animations as well.

Wikis can be a great tool to create content in local language. Wikipedia is the best example- in such a short span of time; it has more than 100,000 articles available in 23 languages.

Apart from creation of locally relevant content, translation of English language content into local languages is being done. As this is a tedious process to be implemented manually, machine translation is being made use of.

This first attempts to use machines to translate languages was made in the US in 1954 by collaboration between IBM and Georgetown University. Since then there have been other attempts at it. Google translator is a recent one. Clicking a button on the Google toolbar will allow people to read in English, pages in languages they are not familiar with. Sometime in the future, using instant messengers, we should be able to chat with people who do not speak the same language (as the computer will do the translations on the fly). Machine translations are not perfect but can definitely make the task easier by reducing the human effort.

Countries such as Bangladesh, India and Thailand are actively looking at machine translation to remove the language barrier.

Promoting English language literacy
While this can be definitely seen as controversial in many countries, functional knowledge of the language can go a long way in promoting adoption of ICT in education. Language learners can not only learn to read and write but also to speak. The software can save the conversation as an audio file and compare their pronunciation, with a benchmark and evaluate. Applications that can convert text to speech and speech to text would be extremely valuable.

Technology actually enables preservation of local culture, language and literary knowledge rather than being a threat to it. A good example would be “Te Ara” a national encyclopaedia of New Zealand ( covering natural environment, history, culture, economy and institutions. It is available in Māori and English and makes extensive use of multimedia content including audio, video and innovative maps (ICT Success Stories- Digital Education and Learning, 2006).

Delivery should not be limited to the PC platform. Educational content can also be made accessible via portable devices such as PDA and mobile phones. Such services are being developed and tested to be delivered without the use of high-end technologies like Wi-fi and GPRS. For example, a pan-European program supported by the European Commission's Information Society Technologies (IST) programme focuses on delivering educational content to 16-24 year olds (ICT Success Stories- Digital Education and Learning, 2006). It uses themes such as football and music to promote literacy and numeracy. The technology to deliver maths, geography and languages is being developed. Portable platforms such as mobile phones, Wi-fi enabled PDAs allow for personalized delivery and peer-to-peer interaction. These devices are easier to use than a PC.

The services can be advertising supported, reducing the cost to the individual subscriber.

Way forward
In conclusion, the language barrier need not be low in the priority list. Cost effective solutions exist and can be implemented.

Efforts undertaken to overcome the language barrier must be encouraged. Individuals and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) engaged in making content accessible in languages that may not be commercially viable should be given recognition in the form of awards and funding.

International workshop on improving E-Learning policies and programs. (2004, 9-13 Aug). Manila.

ICT Success Stories- Digital Education and Learning. (2006). Retrieved 27 Oct, 2008, from

Internet world users by language. (2008, 30 June). Retrieved 29 Oct, 2008, from

Farrell, G., & Wachholz, C. (Eds.). (2003). Meta-survey on the use of Technologies in Education in Asia and the Pacific: UNESCO.

Gray, V., Kelly, T., & Minges, M. (2002). Bits and Bahts: Thailand Internet Case Study: International Telecommunication Union Geneva, Switzerland.

Hutchins, J. (2004). The first public demonstration of machine translation: the Georgetown-IBM system, 7th January 1954. Paper presented at the AMTA Conference. Retrieved 31 Oct 2008 from

Och, F. (2005). The machines do the translating. The Official Google Blog, Retrieved 27 Oct, 2008, from

Pelgrum, W. J., & Law, N. (2003). ICT in education around the world: trends, problems and prospects: UNESCO: International Institute for Education Planning.

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