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Should Language be a Concern for Uganda's ICT Experts?

A document that gives a general impression of the online discussion, @ www.dgroups.org/groups/i-network
By Wairagala Wakabi, I-N Media Node
The I-Network discussion group has over the last few weeks been dominated by debate over whether ICT practitioners need to be masters of language as well. A posting by a student at an ICT training institution who sought internship opportunities from d-group members sparked off the debate. One member of the d-group took issue with her command of the English language and her communication skills, and went ahead to advise that ICT persons also need to have neat language and communication skills.

The debate has since evolved, and drawn animated contributions from members of the group. Many members have been in support of the criticism of the young lady who wrote in inquiring about internship opportunities. This group submits that one cannot get a second opportunity to impress, and that like other professionals, IT workers must master how to communicate well, especially if it is formal communication as the young lady's was construed to be. In line with this thinking, there were a number of submissions that questioned the educations system in Uganda where several students get out of school when they can hardly practice what they studied, or express themselves in proper English. Some discussants questioned why many Ugandans are content with mediocrity. As one member put it, Personally I believe that we teachers, students and leaders should build an impression of no tolerance for mediocrity so that all strive to achieve that 100 percent. But if we start by discounting and protecting mistakes then we may not even get close to that expected level of excellence.?

Another submitted that knowing English gives Ugandans many opportunities compared to neighboring countries - whether the possibilities for international jobs, studying abroad, access to the vast English literature (which could be on ICT), or inflow of students from non-English speaking countries.?

But then, there was considerable opinion on the discussion forum that one does not need to be an expert at the English language (or even at communicating) if they have requisite skills for the [IT] job they are doing. English is a foreign language after all, some said. Others said the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and many other people were successful in growing their economies, and doing their jobs (including IT ones) even if they did not speak English.

The debate then delved into some really pertinent issues for the Information Society. A case was made for getting local languages into cyberspace, but with Uganda boasting of more than 50 languages, there is a serious challenge in this regard. Uganda does not have a national language, and attempts to get one of the indigenous languages to occupy that position is dogged by several considerations. This in effect means the effort to get Ugandan languages in cyberspace is a tougher one.

The Tunis Agenda on the Information Society, which heads of state endorsed last November, notes that a lot of effort has been spent in Africa on creating ICT enabling infrastructure, while pretty little attention has been invested in creating content. As a result, the internet remains a predominantly elitist English medium that can hardly be used by hundreds of non-English speaking Africans (even if they were to access and afford it). This also means that much of the content on the web is not of particular relevance to Africans, whose own indigenous knowledge remains largely undocumented in conventional, especially electronic, forms. Such concerns, coupled with the fact that just about two percent of Africans access the internet, have led some people to refer to the World Wide Web as the World White Web.

Amidst all this debate, one of the over-arching concerns for Uganda's ICT community should be how to create relevant local content, to get local languages applicable in web browsers and have websites in local language. As Ugandans, perhaps the premier national local-content generation programme that should interest us is the one run by the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF) of the Uganda Communications Commission. Under this initiative, websites have been created for each of Uganda's districts (as at mid 2004) and a national portal has also been created. (See www.dip.go.ug and www.ugandaweb.com).

But while this was primarily touted as a venture in creation of local knowledge, it is worth noting that these sites, for all their positives, contain little content in local languages. But to their advantages, some of them the contain content on languages like Luganda, Luo, 4Rs, Ateso, et cetera; and there is a facility on some sites which allows one to view the same content but in different languages. What we need to ask ourselves is what the efficacy of such initiatives is, and what use they really are serving. And is UCC, the Uganda government, civil society and even the private sector playing an adequate role in taking local languages to cyberspace and to the Information Society? If not, what needs to be done? But even before coming to these questions, perhaps agreement needs to be reached as to whether we need those languages at all in this globalising world where to have a good grasp of the English language seems like a visa of to prosperity.

In furtherance of this debate and as part of I-Network's mandate to hold public debates on issues pertinent to the ICT fraternity in Uganda, a public debate will be held on May 19 2006 to discuss issues around effective communication for the ICT fraternity. The meeting will be held at grand imperial Hotel starting 2pm and several stakeholders have been lined up to make presentations..

For more information on this event, please contact the I-Network Secretariat:-
Tel: 041-4578228
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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