IDRC seeks to bring Internet home to mother tongues

Canada’s International Development Research Centre is leading a project to help Asian countries publish and use content on the Internet in their native languages.

The government has earmarked $1 million for the initiative, called

the Pan Asia Networking Local Language Project. The IDRC, its partner the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences in Pakistan, and participants from six other countries met in Geneva Wednesday to announce its creation at the World Summit on the Information Society.

“”It’s no secret that a lot of the language and content that’s on the Internet is in English. Even a number of government Web sites that are being established in the countries we’re working in — in South Asia and South East Asia — are in the English language,”” said Nancy Smyth, senior program specialist at the IDRC.

Any language content that is native to those countries is often just a static image that has been posted, she added. “”In other words, it’s content that can’t be processed in the same way that our English can be through Google or other kinds of search engines.””

According to the IDRC, more than a quarter of Internet users around the world are from Asian countries, but less than five per cent of the population in those countries are online.

The six countries involved in the Pan Asia project are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, Sinhala is the dominant language along with Tamil, which is also spoken in parts of India. Ruban Weerasinghe, a researcher at the University of Colombo School of Computing in Sri Lanka, said he’s working to try to get those languages better represented on Web sites that affect his country, as well as in software that is chiefly written for an English-speaking audience.

“”The primary work is in trying to build up linguistic resources like lexicons, dictionaries, spellchecking . . . things like that. Then also text to speech. In English it’s quite well developed. You can type something in English and get the computer to speak it. To do that kind of thing for our language is part of this project,”” he said.

Research from the University of Colombo and other Asian institutions participating in the project will be funneled through the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences.

“”We’re supporting networking between the countries so that there can be an exchange of information on what kinds of processes work best and what kinds of best practices around software development are working the best,”” explained Smyth.

The Pakistani university will be hosting a workshop in January to address other language issues in technology. They are interested in engaging Microsoft and members of the open source community on future projects, said Smyth.

“”It’s actually amazing to travel through these countries and meet with these researchers and find out just how difficult to get Microsoft’s attention to try to get the actual keyboard development and font development in local languages,”” said Smyth. “”People are absolutely desperate waiting for the software to become available in their own languages.””

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