Bridging the digital divide (one Central Asian language at a time)

The localization of Skype into the Kyrgyz language in 2011 has been the first step to opening the world’s most popular messenger to the people who do not – surprise, surprise – speak Russian or English.

In my perception (as a foreigner who has not conducted any academic research into the use of language in different Central Asian countries and mainly looked around while traveling) Russian firmly holds its ground only in Kazakhstan where the entire north speaks it.

In Kyrgyzstan most Russian-speakers are concentrated in Bishkek, and the provinces are almost completely Kyrgyz-speaking. Uzbekistan was predominantly Uzbek-speaking even in Soviet times. And Tajikistan has a good Russian-language school out of necessity: the work migration to Russia is the largest among all Central Asian states. The money sent back to Tajikistan by migrants form a decent share of household income.

Although a share of people in each of the Central Asian states do speak Russian as the first foreign language, their level of knowledge is not at a proficient-user, or C2, level (again, with the exception of Kazakhstan).

A trend of shifting state education to national languages has contributed towards diminishing position of Russian in society.  However education in Russian is still believed to be of higher quality as the Russian-language schools have managed to maintain the best-educated professors.

In personal communications, people in Uzbekistan,Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan(outside Bishkek) predominantly use national languages, whereas in Belarus, Belarusian is substituted by Russian even on this level.

At the same time, knowledge of English is not quite popular enough to replace Russian as the lingua franca of the region as people still prefer to speak Russian to their counterparts in neighboring countries. At the same time, in interpersonal communication, they prefer their national languages.

This means that the absence of software in Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik efficiently cuts off more than a half the population of those countries from using Skype or any other online services. Since these countries have now reached the stage where Internet is open to everyone (the prices are low enough for the number of connections in the regions to surge), the software in national languages becomes an urgent need to bridge the digital divide. Or rather it is something that, at the very least, could contribute to it.

Anyway, the localization of Skype is fairly simple, as I have written previously. You take the language file and translate it – approximately 1,200 words – and you have Skype in Kyrgyz (published in 2011), Skype in Uzbek (which came in 2012) and now there is Skype in Tajik (early 2013) – downloadable here.

The initiator of Skype’s localization, Abdulfattoh Shafiev, led  a team of volunteers translating in their free time. He said their inspiration was the idea of bringing technology closer to their fellow residents. The result of their work is now here.

We don’t know the number of downloads, but that is not important: obviously some time will pass before the downloading becomes massive. What is more important is that there is an experienced team of people who may inspire others and wish to proceed with localization in the future.


About the Author

Alaksiej Lavoncyk

Alaksiej Lavonczyk is a media activist and social media expert from Minsk, Belarus. He had been in charge of the training projects for the NGOs and media on building their capacity in online campaigning and end-user security. Alaksiej had also acted as a consulting and technical expert for NGOs and media in Belarus and four countries of Central Asia (except Turkmenistan) on upgrading media/NGO websites to meet contemporary standards, and on their promotion online. Alaksiej is also running an online training centre for the Central Asians preparing the specialists in SMO promotion.
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