By Kuniomi Shibata Tokyo, Japan, 30 November 2006
Over the past few years, a considerable number of discussions have been conducted on linguistic diversity in the online world. It has brought with it a controversy, in part due to the fact that the spread of the internet is frequently hailed as a cause for the loss of cultural diversity. At the recent Internet Governance Forum though, much attention was given to the protection of our linguistic diversity.
From Japan, two panellists at the Athens IGF brought us forth in our understanding of linguistic diversity. Keisuke Kamimura, associate professor at Glocom, addressed the floor in the main session on Diversity. The other, Dr. Shigeaki Kodama, who is engaged in a multilinguistic research project at the Nagaoka University of Technology, made a presentation at the linguistic diversity workshop sponsored by UNESCO.
We, from APC-member JCAFE, participated in their respective sessions, and even got the change to interview them.
“Diversity” was probably the session – out of four – in the internet forum that attracted most participants. Incidentally, it was also a smooth sailing plenary session with little divergences. Kamimura explained the reason for this “particular coincidence in opinion” in sustaining that as a general rule, no one opposes promoting diversity. “It is however clear that everything is not possible,” said he. All resources available to support different languages on the internet, be they human, economic or other, are limited.
Kamimura emphasised that it is of utmost importance for us to make a policy. According to a saying of him, the policy needs to “delineate” the direction that would lead all stakeholders (governments, the private sector and civil society) to reach an agreement on how to deliver dutifully on linguistic diversity.
The internet is not only an information tool, but also a participatory media. If you do not exist in the net, you would experience many disadvantages. As much, some would argue, as if you did not know how to use a television set. “All of us request the repositioning of multilingualism on top of the internet development agenda,” Kamimura stressed.
In our interview with Dr. Kodama, he bluntly expressed that “if we are to write oral languages, massive investment would have to be committed to linguistic research.” Continued he: “It is impossible to make full descriptions of these languages without grammatical research. These specialised investigations need large amounts of resources channelled towards research and development. In Africa and developing Asia, many people learn English, French or national standard languages to improve their chances to earn more money. The reason they kiss their own oral-languages good-bye is plain survival. It is to deal with difficult circumstances.
Dr. Kamimura led us to conclude that what is needed in terms of policy for langiages on the internet, is to create an environment in which the use of minority languages does not become economically disadvantageous. All of us should be able to develop and thrive in our own language.
So far, we have observed that Japanese is key to promoting linguistic diversity. It is thought that Japan has developed economically in our own language. There are nonetheless many foreigners residing in Japan (from China and Korea), newcomers (especially from India and South East Asia) and native speakers (such as the Ainu). Yokohama for example, the city next door to Tokyo, has one of the biggest Chinatowns in the eastern hemisphere. Contrary to the Chinese immigrants’ contributions to Japan’s economy, a lot of linguistic minorities are still faced with disadvantageous conditions when it comes to the internet. Civil society in Japan recognises the need to address those linguistic impediments and to develop sufficient know-how that would help come up with a policy on linguistic diversity.
On the other hand, we are “majorities in the minority” since we do not use Latin alphabet and Japanese is not an official language of the United Nations.
In the IGF discussions, I was personally struggling to communicate what I felt and thought to the same extent then using “interrupted” languages such as English, French, Chinese, and the like. But drawing from these discussions, I believe that the Japanese civil society would be able to advocate an emphasis on multilingualism with renewed strength in the coming and determining years.
The words of Kamimura and Kodama have made me realise that the Japanese have contributed greatly to solve those challenges of linguistic diversity in the context of the first ever internet forum. Controversy abounds on how we bring multilingualism to fruition in the online world and as Kamimura illustrates, we need to face this challenge. “The discussion about diversity must not become diversity.”
It is the time to develop a common strategy with many other citizens. From a Japanese point-of-view, I think civil society in Japan will be at the forefront for promoting a balanced understanding of multilingualism on the internet.
Photo: Plenary panel on diversity at the IGF, Athens 2006
Credit: Kuniomi Shibata