How can we achieve a multilingual internet?

8 Dec 2021 12:50h - 14:20h

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Event report

This main session discussed why it is important to think about local languages in the context of meaningful universal connectivity.

ITU estimates that about 800 million new users connected between 2019 and 2021. Although many are not what we would consider meaningfully connected. A lack of compelling actionable content in relevant languages continues to be a significant barrier to increased internet uptake.

Of an estimated 7,000 languages and dialects only about 10 have any substantial online presence. Consequently thousands of indigenous minority and low resource languages are effectively excluded, depriving millions of people from the benefits and the opportunities of the digital world.

‘We will never achieve our vision of an Internet united if we do not ensure that the online world actually reflects and amplifies the full diversity of our human experience, and of course, all of its richness. That means that there can be no universal meaningful connectivity until we achieve a truly multilingual online space,’ said Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the ITU).

Progress has been  with the creation of international domain names but very few online language tools have been developed for lesser-used languages. A reliance on technology alone will not be sufficient and cooperation and the incorporation of grassroots efforts by local communities must become key elements. For instance, digital language activists in Africa are working with organisations like Wikimedia to improve the online presence of widely spoken languages such as Zulu, Digbani, Igbo and others.

“Ensuring that everyone can access and everyone can benefit from those opportunities regardless of where they live or the languages they speak is absolutely fundamental to our vision of a connected planet and, of course, our pledge to Leave No One Behind,” said Bogdan-Martin.

Making the internet multilingual is one way to bridge the digital divide. UNESCO has brought forward initiatives like the International Year of Indigenous Language (held in 2019), the World Atlas of Languages (a digital platform reporting on more than 8300 spoken and signed world languages), and the African language program to develop an African language data set.

Mr Tawfic Jelassi (Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information of UNESCO) said we need to create a cycle in which people have access to content that is meaningful for them, so they can create value through that content and further contribute in creating content themselves.

Multilingual internet is not simply about providing translation or transliteration within government or non-government websites. It is about giving a voice to people in their own languages. Promoting localised content means more and more people can come forward, document their stories, upload and occupy the space.

The technical infrastructure of the Domain Name System (DNS) enabling people to use their own languages on the internet already exists. What is needed is ‘universal acceptance’ of this standard, said Mr Ram Mohan (Chief Operating Officer of Afilias) who coined the term in 2001. Universal acceptance means ensuring that the internet’s systems, the websites, the applications, the apps, all make the necessary changes to recognize that the internet can run in more than one language.

ICANN has incorporated this in its strategic plan in order to prepare for the new modern identifiers that will support multilingualism on the Internet. Small changes by regulators and TLDs can bring about considerable universal acceptance and greater access to multilingual content on the Internet.

Ms Maria Kolesnikova (chief analyst at the Coordination Center for TLD .RU/.РФ) said governments and/or other entities and interested parties should use international domain names and emails to ‘walk the talk’.

By Mili Semlani

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