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Language as a Cultural Barrier in ICT4E Deployments

By Lindsay Poirier on April 6, 2012


When I started working on my ICT4E project a few months back, I thought I had all of my bases covered. It’s easy to fall into that groove. I learned quickly, however, that there are countless variables to consider when you’re designing for a different culture – some of which may not be blatant at first.

As I have mentioned in prior posts, my project involved allocating educational web resources relevant to Tanzanian primary school curriculum objectives on a web interface. This interface separated the resources into subject, grade (or standard in TZ), and curriculum objective. All of the resources were screened for cultural relevance to Tanzanian culture and for relevance to specific points within the curriculum. Since the site was being developed for an English-medium school, however, all of the site’s text was in English.

Don’t forget the maths

After first writing about this project on ICTworks last December, a colleague commented on the post, making an observation. In my headings for the various subjects, I had used the word ‘math’ instead of ‘maths.’ In my entire English speaking life, I have never heard mathematics referred to as ‘maths,’ so why was this such an important observation?

As it turns out, Tanzania uses United Kingdom English – not American English, and in U.K. English, ‘maths’ is the correct term. This isn’t the only instance where language discrepancies may have become problematic. In Tanzania, their elementary schools are referred to as primary schools, and as you may have noticed above, their grade levels are referred to as standards. It was only through prior experience in the country that I came to learn those differences.

Language is local

The lesson here is to always have a local individual on your team when you are working on developing an ICT4D project. Even when you are developing in your native language, there may be discrepancies in how certain words are understood or interpreted. Using incorrect wording has the potential to confuse end users, and this can be extremely problematic, particularly when it comes to understanding written instructions. The text or language used in any project should never get in the way of its success.

That being said, it also couldn’t hurt to have an individual who speaks the native language on board. In my project, finding educational resources to teach English as a Second Language was particularly challenging for me since I could only speak very little Swahili (Kiswahili in TZ). I found several sites that used audio to support learning English vocabulary or videos to support object recognition in English, but all of the instructional text on these sites were in English – not particularly beneficial to those who were only beginning to learn how to speak it. I likely could have found sites with much better educational quality if I was working with an individual who could speak Swahili.

Language is an important cultural barrier when it comes to developing ICT4D projects, but by making use of human resources with local expertise, it doesn’t have to harm the quality of the project.


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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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One Comment to “Language as a Cultural Barrier in ICT4E Deployments”

  1. Thanks for this article, I have been trying to raise awareness on this subject for 2 years now without much success, I hope we will get some momentum.

    Teaching literacy in mother tongue is very important to enable a successful education, an the acquisition of a second language.

    iLearn4Free the non profit I founded is developing a web and mobile application which can be adapted in any language, and we hope to find local institutions willing to embrace the idea and develop a version in their local language.