The Need for Language Diversity Online

Inga Sikweyiya

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In the age of digital we're seeing significant changes in the way that people work and live. The education system is not exempt from this movement.

Is the internet ready to embrace our indigenous languages?  

In the age of digital we’re seeing significant changes in the way that people work and live. The education system is not exempt from this movement. Coding and Robotics are new subjects that will be introduced to Grades R-9 in 2020. What does this changing syllabus mean to learners who are in schools where there is an existent challenge with the English language? It’s time to have the conversation on English language

Over the years, the internet’s biggest search engine, Google, has gradually added African languages to their Google translate service to be more inclusive to the African market. On average, Africa consists of approximately 1500 to 2000 languages. Google Translate has 13 of those languages, with only 4 South African languages catered for, namely Afrikaans, isiZulu, Sesotho and isiXhosa. How inclusive is the internet then? Hootsuite reports that only 54% of the country’s population has access to the internet. So who does Google serve in a multilingual country where internet penetration is low? Their goal to break language barriers and to make the world of online more accessible is certainly not practical.

Digital transformation has been lauded as the next best thing to introduce into the schooling system. Many of the schools that are part of this revolution are private, while public schools benefit the least. The government has increasingly distributed computers in schools in rural areas more than it has invested in the development of skills. A report compiled by academic, Fambaza Tembalihle, stated that teachers in the rural schools lack functional computer skills. With this lack of digital literacy skills, the presence of computers remains a tick-in-the-box exercise that results in learners walking away with basic or no computer skills at all. This attests to the hindrance of information development which is sustained by the poor education infrastructure in undeveloped communities. With systematic inequality in education still in place, the digital transformation concept remains a myth to many.

So what does the future of digital transformation in South Africa really look like? Apart from serving SME’s, will young South Africans ever be fully integrated into Industry 4.0? Gradually, we are seeing a pop-up of coding programmes in South Africa; one such programme is Codemakers. Based in KZN, Codemakers teaches coding to primary school learners in isiZulu. This is an undeniably excellent move by this NGO. It helps us imagine what inclusive digital transformation would look like. Now imagine such programmes in the rest of the country’s under-resourced areas like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

There is an urgent need for inclusivity of South African languages in the digital space. If we are  truly part of the global village, then it’s time we became a part of its transformation. At grassroots level, our country needs bigger investment in computer skill training; Training that will translate to functional knowledge of computer tech, for the majority of its citizens. Until then, the language of digital transformation is not our own.