Communities advance when computers speak their language

May 09, 2013
Kids learning computers at school. Credit: Frederick "FN" Noronha/C C

Citizens in remote rural areas in 11 Asian countries are leaping over language barriers and into the Internet age. They may now access government services online, and submit college applications without making an arduous trek to the city. And their children are learning the computer skills that promise greater economic opportunities in the future.

This is just a sampling of the Internet-era benefits available to millions more people across Asia thanks to the work of the PAN Localization program. This IDRC-supported network of (known as PANL10n) has been working since 2003 to develop new technologies that allow computers to function in local languages.

Asia's relatively low Internet use does not reflect a lack of public enthusiasm, says project coordinator Sarmad Hussain, a professor at Pakistan's University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. When online demonstrations have been set up in rural communities, the use of computers "is a very easy sell. People are excited that this technology can give them access to many things they don't have access to right now," Hussain says.

Local scripts

A major obstacle to Internet use—until now, at least—has been language. With 3,500 local languages in the Asia-Pacific region, and fewer than 10% of people able to communicate in English, is typically restricted to urban areas.

Focusing on the way language hinders online access was a strategic approach that has allowed the PAN Localization initiative to "tackle the digital divide in Asia at its root," says former IDRC program officer Maria Ng. The network has assembled a pool of highly skilled software engineers, , and . They work together to overcome the formidable technical obstacles to making local scripts compatible with computers, and to promote their use.

"Each language has its own problems and therefore requires a unique solution," Hussain explains. "That's the real challenge."

Citizens connect

The results can now be seen both in small communities and at the level of public policy. In rural Nepal, locally adapted software enables people to Skype with family members who have left to work elsewhere. In rural Cambodia, computer software applications that list market prices for agricultural goods or that bring news from nearby communities have proven popular.

Government initiatives also promise to spread the benefits of computer technology. Bhutan, for example, has launched an e-government program allowing distant citizens to complete official forms online in the Dzongkha language.

Hussain adds that local-language computing capabilities have spurred a movement in Pakistan to introduce computer training at an early age, when students are taught in their own . (At older ages, instruction is in English.) He sees a social benefit in this early introduction, given that greater comfort with computers improves economic prospects and encourages innovation.

Explore further: Nation is facing a refugee crisis, not an immigration crisis, says writer

Provided by International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

1 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Manchester boasts 153 languages

Dec 12, 2012

(Phys.org)—Linguists at The University of Manchester have discovered their city boasts of at least 153 languages, making it one of the world's most diverse places.

Tajikistan blocks US-funded news website

Nov 30, 2012

(AP)—Tajikistan has blocked a popular U.S.-funded news website, only days after barring access to social networking site Facebook for featuring content allegedly insulting to the Central Asian nation's president.

Recommended for you

Putting children first, when media sets its own rules

23 minutes ago

In an age when a significant number of parents won't let their child walk down the street to post a letter because of "stranger danger", it's ironic that many pay little attention while media organisations ...

Self-made billionaires more likely to give than inheritors

1 hour ago

A study by economists at the University of Southampton suggests that billionaires who have built their own fortunes are more likely to pledge to donate a large portion of their wealth to charities, than those who are heirs ...

Recessions result in lower birth rates in the long run

17 hours ago

While it is largely understood that birth rates plummet when unemployment rates soar, the long-term effects have never been clear. Now, new research from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public ...

Human trafficking, an invisible problem

21 hours ago

Human trafficking is a problem about which little is known in Spain, due to both the lack of reliable figures as well as the poor coordination among international police forces and the social permissiveness with regard to ...

User comments : 0