Activist linguist groups are making sure apps speak all languages

By Sofia Gallarate

Updated May 16, 2020 at 10:59 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

On December 10, a group of language activists from Bolivia translated the digital security app Orbot to the Aymara language, enabling their community to use the app while furthering the fight to preserve their native tongue not only in the real world, but in cyberspace too. Aymara is spoken by over one million people in Bolivia, Peru and in the northern part of Chile, but despite being one of the main languages spoken in the Andes regions (alongside Spanish), Aymara is still considered a minor language, and similarly to fellow indigenous tongues, is often excluded from language options in apps and tech services.

Orbot is a downloadable app for Android that creates a private mobile internet connection that permits different apps to use the internet more safely. Orbot encrypts traffic and circulates it through several computers scattered around the world, making its content untraceable. What makes Orbot unique is that it uses Tor, the free software and open network that protects users from network surveillance and traffic analysis.

As apps and digital services are increasingly penetrating people’s day-to-day, with the premises of simplifying or facilitating our lives, members of the Jaqi Aru—a group of volunteers who is translating and creating online content in the Aymara language since 2009—have now reached a new goal: allowing the Aymara indigenous community to join Orbot and access the online protection services it provides by translating the app’s features in Aymara.

Jaqi Aru has already translated Facebook’s interface, and is now translating articles for Global Voices and creating content on Aymara on Wikipedia. But the Jaqi Aru activists are not alone in the movement for the representation of minor and indigenous languages on the internet. For the Orbot project for instance, Jaqi Aru collaborated with Localization Lab, an organisation that brings together linguists, digital security trainers, technologists, professional translators and activists to build connections between developers and communities in a bid to increase localisation and tear down language barriers in technology.

For Localization Lab’s Executive Director Dragana Kaurin, translating technology is fundamental, and it’s also the only way forward to protect language rights and cultural diversity, “Every internet user needs to worry about protecting themselves online; from protecting their passwords to preventing viruses and securely surfing the web. But talking about digital security can be confusing for a lot of us, and adding a language barrier on top of that can mean preventing people from accessing much-needed technology.” Said Kaurin.

Technology has reached every corner of the world, and its services and full accessibility can only be maintained by the effort of groups such as the Localization Lab and Jaqi Aru. In a moment where indigenous and local languages are increasingly threatened by globalisation, making sure that technology speaks all languages is a necessary endeavour towards the preservation of diversity in today’s world culture.

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