What if I gave you a fully loaded Macbook Air filled with content in Klingon?

Published on: Aug 19 2011 by Wayan Vota

klingon language

That is what I think many good intentioned people do when they install computer systems without locally relevant content – they deploy the equivalent of a computer lab filled with the Star Trek cannon in Klingon.

Think about it. If your users are not literate in English, if they cannot read and write in the Internet’s main language, what they see on screen makes as much sense as Klingon does to you or I.

And before you think users will find or create content in their own language, let us look at the article per language count on Wikipedia. If we add in the number of people who know each language, you can quickly see that many African languages are grossly under-represented online.


Now the Wikipedia isn’t the entire Internet, but it is a good proxy for user-generated content online. And if your users speak Kiswahili, Luganda, Chichewa, or Xhosa, giving them a computer lab with English-only content is as useful as Klingon.


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Wayan Vota is a Senior Mobile Advisor at FHI 360 and is a regular contributor to ICTworks. He co-founded ICTworks, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, Educational Technology Debate, OLPC News, Kurante, and a few other things.
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3 Comments to “What if I gave you a fully loaded Macbook Air filled with content in Klingon?”

  1. Excellent thought!

    There’s a possibility though that in countries where the primary language of instruction is English, rolling out apps or web services (or even operating systems) in a local language would result in a degraded experience and poor adoption.

    Google recently made Swahili the default language for google.co.ke. In a number of interviews with cyber cafe owners in rural towns, I learned that users were complaining preferring English instead.

    There may be instances where deploying solutions in local languages won’t improve adoption.

  2. … is exactly what happens when the whole concept of ‘local language’ is misunderstood by outsiders. I’m currently working (in the US) on some media-intensive software to be used in Kenya. While we’ve localized it with Kiswahili text, audio, and video content, we’ve also got the same content provided in English (Kenyan-accented in the media) because Kiswahili is only spoken by 40% or so of the population in the particular city where the app will initially be deployed.

  3. Thank you for this post, which has given me much to think about. I work in international education where the primary language of instruction is English. However, i’m conscious of the differences in my current country (Japan) to previous teaching posts. With the computers we use at school it’s easy to switch between English and Japanese language options, in addition to adopting tools such as dictionary preferences. This certainly wasn’t the case in a number of other countries, and as you point out, material access is just one part of bridging the digital divide, as language must be also considered. I found Patricia Ryan’s TED talk, “Don’t Insist on English” to be a great addition to this debate:


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