Posted by Hennie Loubser
Regional General Manager for West, East, Central Africa & Indian Ocean Islands

Language preservation is a familiar debate for many government leaders, policymakers and humanitarians searching for development solutions in Africa. With their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, and education, languages are the vital, but fragile, ties that can bind cultures, economies or countries. Yet UNESCO estimates that half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends. 
 
We believe technology has an increasingly important role to play in the maintenance of linguistic diversity, not only to promote mutual understanding and dialogue, but also to strengthen local economies. All too often communities are excluded from IT skills fluency, and the accompanying job opportunities, for lack of technology in their local language.  Through the Microsoft Local Language Program, we are committed to supporting our software in as many languages as possible in cooperation with governments and communities around the world. Currently our Windows and Office products are available in 15 written and spoken languages in Africa:

  • Afrikaans
  • Amharic
  • Arabic
  • English
  • French
  • Hausa 
  • Igbo
  • isiXhosa
  • isiZulu
  • KiSwahili
  • Portuguese
  • Sesotho sa Leboa
  • Setswana (Tswana)
  • Spanish
  • Yoruba

That means Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are available in the first and/or second language of the majority of Africa’s 1 billion people.

So, how do we do this? Hard work and strong partnerships is the short answer.

The longer answer begins with a glossary. We create a glossary in cooperation with local governments, universities, language experts, and others to standardize technical terminology in a local language. The terminology collected in the glossary acts as the basis for the development of an application we call a Language Interface Pack (LIP). This LIP enables you to install a local language version as a "skin" on top of an existing installation of the Windows operating system and standard Microsoft Office system applications. And finally, we support the local IT ecosystem by helping developers build solutions on top of the LIPs, such as spell checkers, translation dictionaries, screen savers, collaboration tools, and online services. When completed, the LIP is available as a free download or distributed by the local government.

Over the last five years, we have worked with partners across the continent to bring local languages to life.

For example, in Nigeria, we partnered with the government to make Microsoft Windows Vista available in three of the country’s most widely spoken languages: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Alhassan Zaku, called the 2009 release, “A turning point in the history of technology in our beloved country. This initiative is a long-awaited vehicle that will take the benefits of ICT to people at grassroots level in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. It also represents a breakthrough in Nigerian linguistic and literary studies.”

In South Africa, we are fortunate to have a number of Local Language Program partners, but one innovative example comes from the Siyafunda Community Technology Centres in the Gauteng province. By using the Setswana and isiZulu LIPs, these centres are now able to offer their computer literacy training in the local vernacular for members of the rural community.

There are hundreds of similar examples across the world. To add your voice, please visit the Microsoft Local Language Program Web site.