Anyone who grows up multilingual knows that words are more than just labels that we apply to things. We are funnier in one language than another, because the wordplay comes faster. We are sweeter in one language than another, because we know how to wish someone a morning filled with flowers and not just a curt “Good morning.” Words shape the contours of our sociality and open up our imagination to what is possible. They allow us to write and speak ourselves into our communities and into the world. Language makes it possible for us not only to describe the world but to inhabit it. “We do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Toni Morrison said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
What will be the language of our digital future? What will be the measure of our digital lives? I’ve been thinking about this lately, particularly as we digital-rights advocates stumble to translate key developments in a rapidly changing space to our audiences—the nonspecialists who need to understand the implications quickly and completely so they can defend themselves. Most of the technology we use is built around English as the default language, even if the coding that provides the basis for final platforms and applications is in specific computer languages. In many countries, even the rules that we develop to rein in the worst online behavior are often conceived in English. So Kenya has a data protection law, but Kiswahili, one of its official languages, has no standardized term for “data protection.”
And yet the Internet is taking up an ever-increasing portion of our public lives. Governments all over the world are making “digital first” a cornerstone of how they govern. In the pandemic, for instance, most countries used digital technology to administer vaccines but also for things like food distribution. India’s Covid-19 response hinges on CoWin, a platform that manages vaccine scheduling. This platform has allowed for third-party app development, which means those who can afford to purchase the apps can more easily skip the queues, to the detriment of less digitally connected citizens. Surviving the pandemic in India increasingly depends on a citizen’s ability to navigate technology—skills that are scarce in much of the population. Even without a pandemic, the digital future oscillates wildly between a utopia of well-connected citizens understanding and vocally demanding their rights and a dystopia in which a handful of hyper-informed people dictate the life outcomes of the unconnected and deliberately misinformed majority.
Language will be crucial in determining which version of the future we end up with. Most of the tech that we encounter is built with an English-speaking user in mind. After all, English is used throughout the world, with more than a billion people speaking it as a second language. Indeed, most of us who speak English also speak another language, often switching to English only in specific formal contexts or when consuming the cultural products of the current global hegemon, the United States. The platforms that we rely on to remain connected in this digital age are not ready for our multilingual truths: We live in numerous languages, and constraining our ability to communicate in them effectively limits our ability to participate fully in our digital future.
Consider content moderation on social-networking platforms. In Africa, where some 2,000 languages are spoken, we would need content moderation in at least the eight Indigenous languages that have more than 10 million speakers, though that would cover only a handful of the continent’s 54 countries. We would also need effective translation for the five non-Indigenous languages that are the official languages of the African Union and for unofficial languages like sheng’ and pidgin in which we conduct our daily lives. The current lack of such translation partly explains why hate speech and misinformation in languages other than English often go unnoticed until it is too late. A post inciting violence based on rumors of ethnic attacks in Oromo or Tigrinya will go viral many times over before an English-speaking content moderator in the Philippines or the United States realizes what it means. This isn’t a kink that will be sorted out with time: It’s a major policy gap that speaks to the systemic neglect of certain parts of the world.
More important, digital-rights advocacy also increasingly defaults to English. This movement—which encompasses debates on everything from privacy and data protection to net neutrality and fair business operation—is trying to curb the excesses of the early, heady years of the Internet. After one or two decades of near-universal consensus that the Internet was an unalloyed good, activists are increasingly challenging the way in which it is being shaped by commercial and political interests rather than by community values like inclusion and trust. But even in the world of advocacy, those of us demanding digital rights still revert to English, because it is the language of the platforms we organize on and against.
I believe that this lack of linguistic diversity is partly why it has proved so difficult to build a global, grassroots digital-rights moment. Advocates are speaking, but are we being understood? Are we using language effectively as a tool for inclusion or doing enough to navigate the histories that underpin how our message is received?
In the Commonwealth, English learning has a legacy of both structural and physical violence; erasing Indigenous languages was part of the effort to erase Indigenous cultures. In Kenya, even decades after independence, African students experienced the disc, a circular piece of wood that represented the promise of punishment. If a teacher caught you speaking a language other than English, you would receive the disc, and when you returned it at the end of the school day, you would get a beating. Years and years of beating the Kiswahili, Dholuo, Banyala, and Kamba out of impressionable children resulted in a post-independence generation that built social systems around rewards for mastering English. Although these rules have fallen away with independence, many people still laugh at those who speak “broken” English—a running joke about “backwardness.” The generational advantage that learning English delivers is locked in. This story repeats itself in colonized countries around the world where colonial languages are still taught through rote learning reinforced by caning, thereby suppressing the use of Indigenous languages.
This history raises the question of whether English should be the language of the digital future. African digital-rights activists increasingly say no. We are not just working with existing tech platforms to translate their content into languages other than English; we are also creating software to make translation into African languages better. But even this is not enough.
A digital future in which we can only participate in translation is inherently unequal and exclusionary, shaped by the paranoias and predilections of places that we may never visit. Words take on specific meanings in a specific social context. “Cockroach” can be more than a harmless gibe in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda; it can be an incitement to genocide, because of the way it was used in the lead-up to ethnic violence. And the choice to translate some words and not others reflects the priorities set by those who develop the language of technology. A tech future in which financial terms are translated but digital-rights terms and their implications exist only in English upholds the idea that African communities are valuable only as markets, not as places where people live and love. We must make it possible for people to use technology in their chosen languages.
This was some of the thinking behind the Kiswahili Digital Rights Project that I am currently implementing. I kept noticing that speakers in grassroots digital-advocacy initiatives would awkwardly default to English when explaining essential concepts like surveillance or privacy. Neither Kiswahili nor any of the 100-plus languages that are spoken in Kenya and Tanzania have translations for these words, at least not in terms of their full human-rights implications. We were giving people the words, but we were not giving them the language.
Kiswahili was a natural choice for the project. It is the most widely used language in Africa, spoken by over 150 million people in at least eight countries as both an official language and the language of commerce. It is the only Indigenous African language that is an official language of the African Union. It is a rich language with numerous dialects, because its Indigenous speakers inhabited powerful city-states that were connected enough to share a root language but disconnected enough for that language to take on local flavors. As an official language in Kenya and Tanzania, Standard Kiswahili also has the advantage of benefiting from the numerous linguistic institutes dedicated to promoting it. And because it is part of the largest language group in Africa—the Bantu languages that spread across the continent south of the Sahara—Kiswahili provides an excellent base on which other languages can build.
We have been working with experts from Kenya and Tanzania to translate key digital-rights terms into Standard Kiswahili and with cultural producers to popularize them. We have translated not just the words but the ideas behind them: for instance, choosing a word that doesn’t just define surveillance as the act of being watched but also has roots and modification that emphasize that surveillance isn’t a good thing. In fact, there was no word for surveillance that conveys what it means in a digital-rights context until we started this project. We offered udukizi, which isn’t just about watching but watching with the intent to influence behavior.
Motivated by the ways in which Africans switch languages on social media, I wanted to help make it possible for us to do the same when talking about digital rights. We are working to increase the space for Kiswahili language communities to use technology on their own terms. We are working for a digital future in which people can demand privacy rights, the protection of their data, and an end to surveillance without having to do so in translation.
Yes, there are numerous digital efforts to preserve rare and dying languages, but most of us are multilingual in a less dramatic way. Our languages are not at risk of disappearing per se; they are at risk of being left behind because of the unspoken principle that technological advances must serve the unending quest for efficiency and standardization. We should be able to express that version of ourselves who is funnier, wittier, or more direct, even if it is more expensive or less efficient to enable that, because the point of culture is not efficiency—it is color and complexity and depth.
We need to bring our whole selves into the digital future, and language is central to that. In Africa, which has the youngest population on the planet—more than half of its inhabitants are under the age of 30—a majority of us don’t remember life without the Internet. We want our languages to be spoken in the digital-first future, and we want to be able to shape technology to suit us. And so creating space for us to exist online with as much linguistic complexity as we want is an act of resistance. We must keep affirming our right to define the measure of our lives.