Rapporteur: Francesco Vecchi
According to UNESCO, multilingualism is a key issue for universal acceptance and digital inclusion. Indeed, the internet is an effective tool for development, a source of information, and a gateway for sources, as well as a potential bridge to empower and amplify voices that have long been marginalized. In fact, 34% of the world population has never used the Internet, and a collective responsibility is needed to make sure that marginalised communities are not left behind in the ongoing digital revolution. The internet must be available to all, regardless their background. With this aim, UNESCO, advocates for the preservation, promotion, and revitalisation of Indigenous languages worldwide. To achieve true freedom of expression, media development, and access to information, language technology is a cornerstone and it also conveys cultural identity, playing a pivotal role in shaping societies. Enabling digital content and services in individenous languages will let marginalised communities express themselves and preserve their cultural heritage, while fully participating in the digital age. In fact, one crucial barriers to achieving digital inclusion is the lack of multilingualism in cyberspace: the promotion and use of multilingualism is related to SDG4 (quality education) since it would provide digital resources, content and tools in indigenous languages, as well as access services in their mother tongue. But is also has a vital role in SDG16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions).
Focusing on the case study of Sami population in Finland, the digitalisation of Sami languages points out all the issues of this process. First, providing news on current affairs and journalism means recurring to 3 different Sami languages, but no one can underestimate the importance of reading about one’s own culture and living environment, namely to the younger generation, and to the language itself. As a minority, there is always the pressure to use the mainstream media, but in the era of Internet and digital media anyone who has access to an electronic device can learn the Sami language. Indeed, in Finland, most of the education in Sami languages are taught in digital learning environments. These languages are also used in the media, but they found several issues with subtitles, because of the rare characters needed especially for Skolt Sami. This is a relevant issue since subtitles have a major role in making news available for everyone, but availability issues with minority languages also include, for instance, welfare bureaucracy (e.g. the Finnish National Pensions Institute, KELA) and soft services. The technological development and the Internet have made language revitalization easier for us, but this revitalisation is still missing a political implementation.
For various historical, technological, economic and political reasons, the world of computing continues to use English as the default language. Currently, 60% of the content on Internet is in English, while just 20% of the world population is English speaking. This situation leads, for example, a lack of internationalised domain names. Moreover, English is embedded in the foundational blocks of databases and programming, which stresses the importance of achieving universal acceptance and digital inclusion through multilingualism within the very fabric of digital content. A new approach is required to include people of all ages, cultures and languages in the cyberspace, to provide full participation while safeguarding cultural diversity. First, devices, keyboards, screens, tools and programming languages must be adapted to a real multilingual context, as well as applications and contents: inclusivity can only be provided by a rich and diverse operator set. Second, huge investments must be done in intertranslatability: a new and inclusive language framework for everyone must be designed to let them acquire the tools for systems and applications development, content creation, delivery within cyberspace, and allow for native expressions and thoughts. This process, of course, cannot be performed but for the community and by the community, and Language Generation Models can play a major role. On a final note, the current heterogeneity in connectivity is a potential source of investments from tech companies, which would allow for the feasibility of the whole process.
Developing language solutions to expand digital capabilities is paramount for providing digitally disadvantaged groups a better life. Statistics say that 15% of the world’s population are left out of the global dialogue, and a large part because of language-related barriers. Speaking of digital exclusion, internationalised domain names or IDNs are probably the most visually known aspect of this effort, but most areas fall outside of the scope of universal acceptance as it is now conceived, but universal acceptance as it stands is not enough to tackle those barriers. Efforts need to be refocused by, for instance, getting to the point where indigenous communities and even majority language communities can actually make use of internationalised domain names in their day-to-day lives.
ICANN states that there is much more to be done to make this step inclusive for languages other than English. Universal acceptance necessarily includes indigenous languages, given that they also reflect culture and support diversity. It is not just a question of services; it is also a matter of investments. South Asia and the Sub Saharan region are the least connected to the internet, while there are already 91 gTLDs delegated that are using different languages than the Arab Script., but there is much work to be done. Actually, IDNs promise to give everyone the ability to chat and to reach addresses in their own language, but this promise is far from being respected. Still, the main goal remains that all domain names and email addresses work in all software applications, which would promote consumer choice as well as inclusivity. But this result must be realised by different players, including internet providers and private companies. All in all, the content is key to making this possible: having content in specific languages builds a market and represents a convincing reason for users to want to go in that specific domain. Finally, as we saw, several bits and pieces that need to be put together: software, translation, keyboards, domain names, multi-stakeholdersim, etc… All of this has to be done in support of the local communities, but is also demands a general overview which is now missing.