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.