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Governments and civil society in the region now emphasize the provision of connections and technology infrastructure as the main strategy for enabling communities to go online. National ICT strategies rarely consider what users will do once they get connected, what content they may consume, and what services they will engage with. This is a major strategic flaw.
Global Reach (2004), which has been tracking non-English online populations since 1995, estimates that 68.4 percent of all web content is presented in English. Ranking a distant second on the list of the top ten languages on the Web is Japanese at 5.9 percent, Chinese is fourth at 3.9 percent, and Korean is at tenth place with only 1.3 percent. Since only one-fifth of the region’s population has a working knowledge of English, we can infer that the vast majority of the people cannot effectively utilise the bulk of the information available online, even if the required infrastructure is available. It is a myth that English has become the lingua franca of the world and that everyone should learn the language to take advantage of the possibilities offered by ICT. In fact, only 10 percent of the world’s population uses English as the first language, and this number is expected to decrease (National Geographic, 2004). The reality is that the majority of people do not use English for either personal or professional purposes and the need for localisation will always be there.
Just as serious an impediment is the dominant use of the Latin script in navigating the Internet. Most of the people who visit websites published in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Thai or Tamil scripts still need to enter their URLs using the Latin script in order to get to these websites. This situation can be likened to the world’s population having to navigate the Internet using the Sinhala script if the Internet had been invented in Sri Lanka and the inventors had decided to use their national script as the primary means of navigation around the Web.
This is an especially frustrating obstacle since the technology already exists for Internet navigation using different scripts. The internationalisation of the Internet’s navigation system is now less of a technical problem but more of a political challenge. Countries, governments and communities that use the same script need to master the political will to build consensus on the many linguistic, cultural, political and technical issues concerning internationalising Internet navigation
Localising software and hardware
Localisation is the “process of creating or adapting an information product for use in a specific target country or specific target market” (Hoft, 1995). A language-specific character code set and font are among the key components of localisation. At the very basic level, the localised system must support the character set of the local language in a format common to that region. This character code set has to be registered with the International Organization for Standardization. Technical issues that have to be considered include the input method, application software, operating system, rendering technology and mark-up technology. In addition, there are non-technical issues that are often more challenging than the technical issues. For example, there is variety in the writing systems of languages. Some of these systems are based on characters, others on syllables, and yet others on pictograms.
There are also variations in the writing direction, including from left to right, right to left, and top to bottom. Some scripts seem to resemble each other very closely and yet contain enough subtle differences to make them different scripts altogether. The character structures of the Latin alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters look relatively simple when compared to complex Asian scripts such as Khmer, Thai and Sinhala. In many cases, application software fails to accommodate characters with complex structures. Such complex scripts cannot be localised simply by replacing the character code and font in software. Out of the 6,809 active languages listed by Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.org ), only 100 are enabled by ICT.The intended users of localised technologies need to take the initiative to launch and drive the localisation process for it to be successful. Furthermore, development work is best carried out with the aim of producing free open source software, as solutions may not be developed in as timely a manner as is desired if users were to rely solely on centrally produced commercial proprietary products. The PAN Localization project is a good example of how local initiatives can drive regional efforts in localisation. Adopting open source software often leads to other benefits, such as helping to trigger local capacity development, strengthening the local software industry, expanding adaptation and local-language support, and reinforcing local autonomy in technological matters.
Protecting minority languages
A strong need exists for protecting the heritage of minority languages, languages that are used by very small communities of people. This need is felt most urgently when we attempt to disseminate and share large, irreplaceable bodies of indigenous knowledge only to find a lack of content creation tools and fonts for documenting such knowledge. This puts at risk the heritage of the people who communicate and sustain their ways of life using these minority languages.
Globalisation in the IT sector refers to the “process of creating a product that can be used successfully in many cultural contexts without modification” (Hoft, 1995). In other words, write once and use everywhere. The need for globalisation of ICT and related products may seem obvious, but it is often not done in the Asia-Pacific region. Japanese software serves as an example of the ignorance about globalisation. Japanese ICT users are the pioneers of localisation in the region. They have made significant investment in localising technology and content to meet the needs of the Japanese environment. In this sense, the Japanese people recognise the necessity and importance of localisation. However, only a small proportion of the software and content developed in Japan are exported or are developed for export. The awareness in the country of globalisation has been very weak.
Localisation and globalisation must proceed hand in hand to derive the full potential from ICT. People across the region who are engaged with localisation issues should work together to bring about equitable access to information in this digitally divided region as well as in other parts of the world. We must keep in mind that localisation and globalisation go well beyond substituting character codes and fonts. Rather, these processes are about the reengineering of information products so that they can be easily localised for use in any country in the world. It is really about making the language of a software product neutral.