Monday, June 15, 2009

The Microsoft local languages initiative

THE recent launch of Microsoft's Window Vista in three Nigerian languages is significant in many respects. First, it is a major boost to the growing relationship between the giant computer company and the Nigerian government. Second, it provides an opportunity for Nigerians who are not literate in the English language to benefit from Information Technology advancement. And third, the project is potentially promotive of Nigerian languages and cultures.
Microsoft's initiative should be commended along these lines, although the development throws up a challenge for the two parties involved. There is a need to include more Nigerian languages, if its potential is to be maximised.
The three languages chosen for the scheme - Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba - are no doubt major Nigerian languages. And it should be appreciated that they are among only 100 languages worldwide that Microsoft is incorporating into its design. But the focus on three languages in a country with more than 400 ethnic nationalities and 150 languages may raise questions of exclusion. Questions may also arise as to the criteria employed in choosing the three languages.
The launching of the Microsoft language interface pack in the country coincided with President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's call for the development of computer software in the country's local languages as a means of making information technology solutions more accessible to many Nigerians. Employing familiar languages as computer software should facilitate the realisation of this dream.
Microsoft's Language Localisation Programme (LLP), is part of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the company and the Federal Government. Noting that language is strategic to national development, President Yar'Adua urged Nigerians to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the programme.
We agree with the company that its local language programme is an indication that rather than constituting a barrier to technology access, language can in fact be an asset. Aside from consciously working to extend the programme to include more Nigerian languages, the Government-Microsoft partnership should aspire to produce computers locally. It is a tragedy of sorts that the country entirely depends on computer importation despite its huge population and market potential.
Also, it will be a waste of efforts, time and money if ultimately the partnership does not translate into a deepening of computer information technology knowledge in the country. Although Microsoft may be emphasising the public service nature of its programme, it remains a profit-oriented private organisation. Its reputation in the long term will depend on how it can successfully balance its profit drive with social responsibility.
We are excited by the potential of the Microsoft initiative in promoting local Nigerian languages as a means of accessing information technology. As important as language is to the development of the individual and society, many Nigerian languages suffer neglect and dwindling popularity. Incidentally, both parents and governments share the blame for this. There is no conscious official plan to promote the use and growth of Nigerian languages. Many middle class families also do not encourage the use of local languages or vernacular, for reasons of class snobbery. The result is that many Nigerian children are growing up who are proficient in the English language but can barely say a word in the mother tongue. This has implications for culture and identity.
While the Nigerian Constitution recognises the use of local languages in conducting public affairs, for example in proceedings at legislative houses, many schools are unable to effectively provide instruction in local languages. Yet, the study of at least one Nigerian language is recommended in the school curriculum. Conscious efforts need to be made by governments at all levels, as well as civil society groups, to promote local languages through the school system, the media, and general public enlightenment.
Multinational companies and organisations should emulate the good example of Microsoft in seeking to expand the frontiers of knowledge. Organisations should not be obsessed with profit generation only. They should also spare time and resources for the improvement of value and quality of life in their operating environments. Government should not be tired of encouraging private organisations to render public-spirited services. We commend the Microsoft initiative again and challenge the company, along with government, to embark on employment generation schemes, to extend its value-added propositions.