A NY Times article by Marc Lacey, “Using a New Language in Africa to Save Dying Ones,” tosses together a mishmash of vaguely related topics and tries to make them cohere; fortunately, I don’t have to bother going over it in detail, because Mark Liberman of Language Log has already done so. His summary:
Lacey (the article’s author) does start out by talking about “[making] computers more accessible to Africans who happen not to know English, French or the other major languages that have been programmed into the world’s desktops”. So he may have in mind facilitating a new kind of computer-mediated literacy training among those who don’t know English or French. Or maybe he’s thinking about bringing interaction with networked computers to people who are not literate at all, using images and speech technology. Those are both interesting ideas, but it’s odd to write as if the way to to accomplish such things is to put African languages on an equal footing with English or French in the use of Microsoft Office. Mix in references to endangered languages, text messaging in Amharic, machine translation among English, Afrikaans and Sotho, problems of borrowed vs. created technical vocabulary; stir well; and bake till done.
The ingredients here include preservation and documentation of Africa’s hundreds of endangered languages; full localization of software for Africa’s dozens of large local languages; methods for input, display and editing of Africa’s many orthographies that require (simple forms of) complex rendering; the role of computers in promoting literacy in local languages; language standardization and the development of technical vocabulary; linguistic nationalism among the languages within African countries, nearly all of which are multilingual; and the relationship the major international languages, which in Africa mainly means English and French, though Arabic is also relevant in some areas. These are all important problems, with subtle and complicated relationships among themselves and with other economic, political and technical questions. There are analogous issues in most other areas of the world. I hope that this article means that the NYT editors have developed an interest in these questions, and will continue the discussion in a more careful way at some point in the future.