Posted by Louis Otieno
General Manager, Microsoft East and Southern Africa

The language we speak is a cornerstone of our personal, social and cultural identity. At Microsoft, we’re working hard to give people across Africa – and the globe – access to some of our popular technologies localized in their language. Our motive is to make it easier for all users, but specifically first-time users, to become fluent in programs like Windows and Microsoft Office. We also want to assist in modernising local languages, ensuring they remain relevant in an age when day-to-day Communication is rapidly evolving due to the influence of technology.
 
In line with this vision, Microsoft’s Local Language Program recently launched the KiSwahili Language Interface Pack (LIP) for Windows 7, and we are now happy to be releasing the KiSwahili Microsoft Office Language Interface Pack 2010. There are between 5 and 10 million people in Africa who call KiSwahili their first language, and between 50 and 100 million who use it as a second language. Spoken in Eastern Africa and parts of Central Africa, it is the second most widely understood language in Africa after Arabic, and is ranked by the Global Language System as one of the 12 ‘supercentral languages’, which are very widely spoken languages that serve as connectors between speakers of central languages.

We have invested significant time and resources in our Local Language Program because we believe that the impact of learning in one’s first language on educational development is enormous. When we learn new things, especially as a child, our first language is the foundation for this learning. For example, it is far easier for children (and adults) to learn to read in their own mother tongue, as they are able to use their spoken language as a reference point. And computer literacy education is much the same - once a user has mastered a software programme in their own language, they’ll find the progression to using it in English far easier.

In addition to removing the language barrier to education, our Local Language Program also excites me because it is deeply involved in helping to keep native languages modern, mainstream and relevant to their speakers. One of the main causes of ‘language death’ is that bilingual speakers start to use their ‘second’ language gradually more frequently – usually because it has more utility and is more applicable to their daily lives. So although KiSwahili is strengthening its place among the world’s global languages – being taught at many universities across the world and featuring on many high profile radio stations; this isn’t enough on its own. To continue to remain relevant, it needs to expand to reflect the changing experiences of its speakers – such as the incorporation of new tools and technologies into their day-to-day lives. So, rather than encouraging KiSwahili speakers, and speakers of other local languages to simply adopt English terminology for Windows and Office; we’ve partnered with governments, universities, and local language experts to develop glossaries for native languages that reflect the subtle nuances of their lexicon, and are developed in line with the rules and style conventions that define each language. Our language program also ties in with our wider belief that people can really only experience the benefits of technology once they gain access to it – and most importantly, develop the skills to use it effectively.
 
Being able to sit down in front of Office 2010 for the first time and easily understand where to go to ‘save’, ‘print’ or ‘send’ is something English speakers take for granted. I’d like to see the disadvantage faced by other languages eventually evened out completely – so I’m happy to report that this recent wave of LIPs for Office 2010 has set a record as being the fastest that we’ve brought the newest version of Office to native language speakers.