Lori Thicke is a language activist who is passionate about language and technology for global access to knowledge. She is the founder of the international translation company Lexcelera as well as the world’s leading language non-profit, Translators without Borders. Lori holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and is a frequent blogger and speaker on language issues. Lori will be speaking at the 12th International Language and Development Conference in Dakar, Senegal.

Follow Lori on Twitter @lorithicke

The Internet is Only as Big as Your Language

There was a time when Wikipedia asked us to imagine a world “in which every single human being could freely share in the sum of all human knowledge”.

Now Wikipedia’s mission statement is less ambitious: “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content … and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”

What happened, Wikipedia?

I believe that between those two mission statements, the world’s largest open encyclopedia came up against one ineluctable fact: without local languages, all the internet access in the world can’t ensure global access to knowledge.  

Despite technological progress, language is still a barrier to access to knowledge. Increasingly, marginalized people can connect up to the internet free of data charges through programs such as Wikipedia Zero, yet if they don’t speak a dominant world language, there’s simply not much content for them.

It turns out the internet is not infinite. It’s only as big as your language.

Today Wikipedia is one of the web properties that offers the most support to local languages: there are articles in nearly 300 languages (out of a pool of approximately 7000). Even so, this coverage is not deep: there is a dearth of content in many African and Asian languages, regardless of their regional weight and the number of speakers. Today, for example, the 41 million Hausa speakers have barely more than 1000 articles on Wikipedia while English-speakers can read almost 6 million.

Access to knowledge is a pre-condition for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, not just for quality education, but also for the goals around poverty, inequality, climate, economic growth, health, clean water and peace and justice.

Any meaningful progress on the SDGs requires ensuring that all the world’s citizens have access to what Wikipedia once referred to as “the sum of all human knowledge”. The Language & Development Conference has played a key role in raising global awareness of the importance of language for human development. It couldn’t be coming at a better time.

Facebook: Translation is Necessary to Connect the World

Recently Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote about the importance of translation to fulfilling the (so far broken) promise that digital technologies would transform life for the bottom billions. "Getting better at translation is important to connect the world,” he wrote.

This may seem like a stunning about-face from someone who built Facebook to connect the world. But as Zuckerberg has discovered, technology is not enough. 

Today we have the technology to physically connect up every man, woman and child on the planet. For example, in Africa, the poorest and most linguistically diverse continent, there are so many mobile devices that you can pick any word to complete this sentence and it will still be true: “More people in Africa have access to cellphones than to … [electricity/clean water/flush toilets/paved roads].”

Furthermore, a growing proportion of those handsets come with internet capabilities, bringing the World Wide Web within the grasp of people who live on just a dollar or two a day. 

Mobile connectivity is so important to the marginalized that according to an iHub Kenya study, users living below the poverty line will go hungry, or walk rather than take a matatu, in order to pay for their mobile phone.

Mobile devices to bridge the ‘digital last mile’ mean that not only can a majority of people in emerging economies catch up with their friends on Facebook, but they can also potentially access all the information they need to ensure a healthier and more prosperous life.

There’s just one catch. If they don’t speak English, French, or another global tongue, the bottom billions are locked out of the Information Revolution, just as they were locked out of the Industrial Revolution.

Now that the digital last mile has been solved, it’s time to turn our attention to translation for bridging the ‘language last mile’.