2010 Meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania

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Objective of the Coalition

Created at Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Rio de Janeiro (2007), the Dynamic Coalition for Linguistic Diversity of the IGF brings together actors interested in and working on the issue of linguistic diversity in cyberspace. The Coalition is coordinated by Maaya – the World Network for Linguistic Diversity (www.maaya.org).

Aim of the Session

The aim of the session was:

  • to consider progress made in the field of linguistic diversity since the last IGF;
  • to learn about new developments from the Coalition Members;
  • to review our priorities for linguistic diversity in cyberspace;
  • to prepare a document of recommendations and a report of activities on behalf of the Coalition for IGF.


Moderator and Reporter:

Participants in the discussion:

Membership in the Dynamic Coalition

Registration to the Dynamic Coalition is an informal process open to all: intergovernmental organizations, governments, civil society, private sector and all men and women of goodwill. See: http://linguis.tk.

Report of the 2010 IGF session

Version française

Left to right: Nii Quaynor, Andrew Mark, Deirdre Williams, Andrey A. Shcherbovich, Chantal Lebrument, Michel Peissik, Viola Krebs, Tijani Ben Jemaa, Louis Pouzin, Pierre Ouedraogo, Lapo Orlandi, Daniel Pimienta, Divina Frau-Meigs, Emmanuel V. Adjovi, Pierre Dandjinou
Left to right: Nii Quaynor, Andrew Mark, Deirdre Williams, Andrey A. Shcherbovich, Chantal Lebrument, Michel Peissik, Viola Krebs, Tijani Ben Jemaa, Louis Pouzin, Pierre Ouedraogo, Lapo Orlandi, Daniel Pimienta, Divina Frau-Meigs, Emmanuel V. Adjovi, Pierre Dandjinou

16 September 2010, from 11:30 to 13:30, In the meeting room 7, Vilnius, Lithuania

Viola Krebs, Session Moderator, opened the session with a brief presentation about the main issues related to linguistic diversity in cyberspace. Among them, she mentioned 1) measuring of linguistic diversity on the net, 2) International Domain Names (IDNs), 3) Scripts and their standards, 4) Contents generation, 5) Promotion of digital literacy and 6) Search engines.

Throughout human existence, there have been a total estimated 40,000 languages spoken. Today, only 6,000 of them are still alive. Of these, only approximately 350 are present in cyberspace. One of the questions is therefore, how to not only move to the next billion Internet users but also how to get 3,500 rather than just 350 languages available on the net. Ms. Krebs mentioned some statistics with regards to languages present online. She mentioned that only 4% of all users in the world were in Africa, with a penetration rate of 5%. In Europe, there were 27% of global users, with a penetration rate of about 48%. In terms of the split of languages, 30% of the contents were in English, 17% in Chinese, 9% in Spanish, 7% in Japanese, 5% in French and 5% in German.

She referred to Funredes for updates about these figures. It was noted by Daniel Pimienta of Funredes that recent statistics were actually not available, due to the massive expansion of the Net and challenges related to tools previously used for obtaining these statistics.

After the brief summary of main issues by the session moderator, the floor was opened to the various members to contribute to the discussion and bring forward specific recommendations around linguistic diversity in cyberspace.

Among the main issues raised in the discussion were those related to:

Measuring linguistic diversity in cyberspace

As pointed out by Daniel Pimienta of Funredes, measuring linguistic diversity in cyberspace is a major issue. Statistics are obsolete, because it is impossible currently to use the tools that allowed measuring linguistic diversity in the past. It is therefore necessary to develop new tools. This requires an investment in time and effort.

International Domain Names (IDNs)

Tidjani Ben Jemaa of FMAI, Tunisia, argued that IDNs are really solely topical. He underlined that as long as they have to be translated from UNICODE into ASCI and back, they were not truly multilingual. The system would need to change for it to be otherwise.

Scripts and their standards

Chantal Lebrument of Eurolinc agreed with Mr. Ben Jemaa with regards to IDNs. She went on to underline that a much more pressing issue was the connection between scripts and keyboards. She mentioned the Arabic language where the keyboard needs to work both from left to right for the roman script and from right to left for the Arabic one.

A remote participant from Serbia asked about scripts and how they could be used.

Democracy, diversity and access to tools and information

Several speakers shared their views on the evolving use of English as the dominant international language, taking over spaces and educational systems of countries where, not so long ago, French or Spanish occupied the role of first foreign language. Specifically, examples were given from Italy, France and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lapo Orlandi of the Associatio Radicale Esperanto from Italy raised the issue of democracy, cultural and intellectual heritage. The fact that languages would be marginalized and solely used in an informal and/or family context is condemning them, he argued.

He argued that although the Internet is from far the most multilingual and democratic media, many, at least in his country, try to impose anywhere the use of English, pretending for it to be the language of the Internet, business and scientific and technological innovation. Although there is no evidence for this circumstance, these arguments are brought forward by politicians, journalists and even intellectuals like an ideology, the ideology of superiority of the English-speaking race. What happens in Italy has to be taken very seriously given that Italy has often been in its history a political laboratory for the best and the worse practices. In particular, the Italian fascism directly inspired Hitler, Franco and later on the fascist governments in Latin America. According to Mr. Orlandi, there is a sort of language fascism carried out today by the Italian government which very recently decided to allow for non-linguistic subjects to be taught in English in Italian public schools to Italian pupils. It will be soon necessary to be certified in English at the first certificate level.

Mr. Orlandi invited the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) to take a position with regards to decisions that are leading to the elimination of French in public schools in Italy. According to the representative of Francophonie, Italy is not a member of Francophonie, which makes it more difficult for Francophonie to have an official position about the issue. Nevertheless, he promised to pass on the request to the appropriate persons and bodies. Mr. Orlandi noted that while Italy is not part of Francophonie, some regions of Italy -- such as Val d’Aoste -- are in the Comité des Régions and in the Assemblée Interparlementaire de la Francophonie. The Universities of Aosta and Turin are also part of OIF.

Baudouin Schombé from the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC) questioned the shift from French to English and what it means for his country, given that RDC is culturally fully anchored in the French language, and has in addition more than 350 ethnicities and 1,000 tribes. The country has 60 million inhabitants, with four international languages spoken. 50% of all students speak French. “If France starts to use English, what should we do?” Mr. Schombé asked. “And what are all the regions that are part of Francophonie going to do?”

Tidjani Ben Jemaa stressed that, in order for other languages than English to be present on the Net, it was necessary to encourage people to actually produce contents.

Deirdre Williams of SALCC, Saint Lucia in the Caribbean Islands pointed out that her native tongue is English. Creole is also spoken in Saint Lucia. A former Prime Minister had suggested that it could not be written and present in cyberspace, which is demonstrably incorrect. Ms. Williams further mentioned that on her island Spanish and French are studied as foreign languages. She recommended that more anglophones be included in the Dynamic Coalition to raise awareness of the extent of the problem of the dominance of English.

Lapo Orlandi lamented that English had become the language of research and development. According to him, this is due to pressures from the United States and the United Kingdom. He stated that the University reform of Bologna was a good one in principle but that results were not. “Last but not least, why bother with linguistic diversity?” he asked. “English will become the language of commerce, research, development and public information.” According to Mr. Orlandi the reason is simple: with the loss of use of a language in public life, economics and politics it is marginalized and starts to be confined to the private sphere.

Language as a mirror of cultures

Divina Frau-Meigs, Professor at the Sorbonne in France mentioned the importance of languages in a cultural context. She pointed out that, different from French, Portuguese was on the rise, thanks to the strategy deployed by Brazil in conjunction with Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries.

She lamented that in Paris there was just one high-school left that would offer Spanish as a first foreign language, instead of English.

She mentioned the importance of mobile technologies for Africa. Mobile phones had surpassed physical phone lines. She argued that it was a question of access to information flows. “The real issue is creative contents generation,” she said.

According to Ms. Meigs, the real question is around access to opportunities, or in other words sustainable access. Information literacy is a crucial element.

She pointed out that it had been decided that the Internet was a Medium. This means that it is not just a question of communication, but also one of access.

She mentioned that at the Sorbonne, there had been talk about ‘illectronism’ and ‘e-competencies’, meaning the capacity to access information and contents online, mixing and remixing, and being able to find the relevant information. “We are thus dealing with an information culture”, she underlined. “And this culture needs to be embraced locally, made accessible to ordinary people. It has to respond to needs.” She continued, “only a few will actually produce substantive information online. It has to do with Internet consciousness versus information poverty.”

What are these needs? Answer: health, useful information for everyday life, law, employment, housing, etc. It is also about the consumption of what is already available on the Net. According to Ms. Meigs, it is possible to encourage contents production, if we step into the information culture, the creative industry and cultural goods in cyberspace. She argued that all cultures have collective memory. This also applies in particular to indigenous cultures.

Further, Ms. Meigs gave the example of land owners who had the power over workers in the field in the past. She compared this situation to the current one related to cyberspace, pointing out that today it is not only a question of having the farmer’s labor to get harvest but it is about getting everything from the simple Internet contents producer: his or her intellectual substance, the work it takes to get it on the Net, etc. She pointed out that this was not very encouraging for individuals in the developing world. She also underlined that the creative industry had to be interested in politics. Otherwise there would be a lack of return on investment. She concluded: “It’s all about the governance of cultures, of languages as a vector of cultures.”

Contents generation

Louis Pouzin of Eurolinc pointed out that the contents problem is currently a techno-problem. Indeed, linguistic diversity can only be achieved if new technologies are developed to integrate oral languages and individuals who do not read or write any language, yet are representing specific language communities. Mr. Pouzin stressed, “we have to move to oral communication, if we want to achieve true linguistic diversity in cyberspace, thus getting to extract a language economy.”

Daniel Pimienta of Funredes pointed out that the divide is more important in terms of access than contents. 50% of all pages accessed are done through search engines. He also pointed out that China is an interesting case to the extent that it is developing its own contents management means and ways.

Pierre Dandjinou of the Strategic Consulting Group and former representative of UNDP pointed out that, at the end of the day, it is all about meeting real-life needs and concerns. He talked about his country, Benin, where he recently participated in a workshop for local authorities around Web 2.0. Local artisans focused on the question of what the Web could bring to improve their day-to-day existence and economic situation. This is why, according to Mr. Dandjinou, local governance related to cyberspace is particularly important in a place like Africa. He warned experts may assume that certain topics or issues would be important for local people and stressed that it was key to actually adapting tools to local and down-to-earth needs such as employment, health, etc. He ended by saying that in Africa, 75% of the job market was in the informal sector, which, in turn, means that specific strategies are needed to integrate this dimension.

According to Ms. Frau-Meigs, not enough content is put online in the academic context in France. In addition, the systems used are typically not open to the public, e.g. closed platform at the Sorbonne. Therefore it is not possible to have a public debate about the papers published. In other cultures, such as the English and American one, people seem to be more easily ready to publish contents online. Ms. Meigs concluded her statement by saying: “it’s all a question of how to think proactively.”

Promotion of digital literacy

Andrey A. Shcherbovich of the State University of Russia underlined the importance of multilingualism for the Russian Federation, where more than 40 official languages are spoken. He pointed out that multilingualism is therefore the corner of information accessibility within the Federation.

  1. Indigenous peoples and languages – the problem is to represent them in cyberspaces – this includes software of specific language symbols;
  2. Information literacy – the majority of people speaking these languages are faced with information literacy challenges and the fact that literacy is indispensable for getting access to knowledge;
  3. Cultural heritage – linguistic diversity minority languages, how to preserve, how to translate, how to make them understood by others. Since 2008, the information for all program of UNESCO has allowed actors to make a lot of progress in the area of linguistic diversity.

Markets and needs

Daniel Pimienta pointed out that the question of linguistic diversity was not well addressed in terms of marketing. More marketing was needed to make it understood. He also mentioned the British Council, which, about three years prior, had warned UK citizens about their need to be multilingual if they wanted to compete on the international job market. “People need to start to understand that they need to be multilingual”, he stated.

Andrew Mark of Amglobal Computing in Washington DC pointed out that linguistic diversity was not disappearing, but had rather become a matter related to economic development in cyberspace.

Search engines and digital libraries

Pierre Ouedraogo of Francophonie agreed that search engines were an issue that needed to be looked into as they do not reflect the contents out there. He also mentioned the importance of multilingual digital libraries.

Tidijani Ben Jemaa agreed with Mr. Ouedraogo, but wondered what the solution to the search engine issue would be. “Is it to develop approaches like China?” he asked.

Daniel Pimienta pointed out that France had developed a functioning search engine: Exalead. He added that the choice of search engines was often a question of digital literacy and online comfort.

Divina Frau-Meigs indicated that a recent research study carried out in eight countries showed that 95% of kids use Google.com first. There is one exception to this trend: in the United Kingdom only 25% of kids do. According to Ms. Meigs this is thanks to digital literacy and awareness of other available options.

Proposal for a World Summit on Linguistic Diversity

Given the situation of multilingualism overall, it was suggested that it would be necessary to hold a World Summit on Linguistic Diversity. In order to realize such a project, Lapo Orlandi pointed out that it would be necessary for the major stakeholders, including the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, ITU, UNESCO, the European Union, and others to join forces. Others agreed with this proposal.

Pierre Ouedraogo referred to the Bamako International Forum on Multilingualism held in January 2009, a project funded by OIF. He pointed out that some of the outcome documents would be very useful for the continuation of the debate towards a Summit. In addition, he underlined that there might be good support on behalf of UNESCO, given that Ambassador Karklins is now Deputy-Director General for Information and Communication. Mr. Ouedraogo also mentioned the Fonds Francophones des Inforoutes as a mechanism that can help promote projects related to cyberspace and languages.

Andrey A. Shcherbovich referred to the Lena Resolution of 2008 as a useful document for future discussions.

Daniel Pimienta made the point that linguistic diversity was no longer just a technicality but rather had become an important matter, which deserved specific attention in the context of a World Summit.


For further information about Maaya, World Network for Linguistic Diversity, see http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/dynamic-coalitions/73-linguistic-diversity and http://www.maaya.org

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