Posted by Steph Holloway on 2013-07-24 08:19:00
The fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world, Africa is also home to over 300 endangered languages. For years, minority language death has been attributed in part to the rise of digital technology. The pervasive use of English in the media meant that indigenous languages were being replaced by this “international language”, to the concern of many community elders. However, in more recent years, digital technology has become a lifeline for many endangered languages in Africa.
Tina Rosenberg’s article “Everyone Speaks Text Message” uses the example of N’Ko to illustrate this point. This script was created only 70 years ago to enable speakers of the West African Manding languages to read and write in the language they spoke at home. For years, it could only be written by hand, or on one of two old Soviet typewriters which had been specially produced to handle the script.
Then, writes Rosenberg, came the digital revolution.
N'Ko script carving sample
Digital technology changed the face of language preservation by making indigenous languages usable in speakers’ daily written communications. For Traore, who emigrated from Guinea to America in 1988, the ability to send and receive emails in N’Ko means that it no longer takes two months to exchange news with his family back home. The availability of printed N’Ko texts also brings the hope of literacy to a country where over 60% of adults cannot read or write, and where literacy efforts have previously been hampered by an education system based in a second language for most students. In 2011, for the first time, N’Ko was taught alongside French in an official school.
However, these changes have not come easily. Everything from the creation of the first rudimentary N’Ko font, to the script’s acceptance in Unicode, availability in Open Office (thanks to SIL's Graphite program) and finally, full support in Windows 8, is the result of small steps taken in homes and schools, universities, and offices from rural Guinea to downtown New York.
Now, campaigners are working to get a N'Ko cellphone developed, but are meeting with resistance. The financial incentive for such a development may be lacking, but the social and cultural impact would be huge. As Rosenberg says, “It might seem strange that the fortunes of N’Ko and of indigenous languages around the world should depend on the ability to subtitle [the television show] ‘24’, to write with Windows and, above all, to text. But for hundreds of heritage languages, a four-inch bar of plastic and battery and motherboard is the future of the past.”