How do you build an online community committed to using this language online?

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How do you build an online community committed to using this language online?

You can use these questions to help kick off this discussion thread:

  • How have you been able to promote the use of a language online with communities?  How do you get others excited and engaged? 
  • How have you trained others to use these citizen media tools?
  • What social media platforms are most suitable for language revitalization, and why? 
  • How can we engage elders and older fluent speakers to engage with social media, especially when fluency is lacking among the younger generation?    
  • Are there concerns about using platforms owned by large for-profit companies that are mainly interested in marketing and advertising to their users? 
  • How realistic would it be to develop independent social network(s) tailored to a given language/culture, and guaranteeing a more “immersive” experience?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to an existing comment!

providing a Facebook group to Rangi language internet users

With regard to building an online community that is using the Rangi language of Tanzania (“Rangi” is the English name of the language; “Kilaangi” is the ethnonym), I didn’t have to do a lot. Maybe, I’ve just been fortunate, or maybe, Rangi language speakers are quite unusual in their internet usage but presumably, most languages which are still spoken by the younger generation have a good number of speakers who are using citizen media tools already. So when I started a Facebook group in Rangi earlier this year (Tuluusike Kilaangi = Let’s speak Rangi; cf., I invited the only three Rangi on Facebook who I knew, and within 2 hours, literally two hours, the group had grown to 26 members, and after eight months now, it stands at approx. 250 members with daily traffic.

Apart from Rangi speakers using citizen media tools like Facebook already, it may have helped that I have been active in Rangi orthography development, literacy activities and literature production since 1997. Possibly all that the Rangi internet users needed was a publicly available space in a well-known location that was dedicated to their language. As a non-native speaker of Rangi, I myself hardly ever contribute to the Facebook group by now, and the vibrant interaction of the group speaks for itself.

Oliver, I am curious how your

Oliver, I am curious how your community deals with the issues like, perhaps not having words to cover certain technical terms. Is there codeswitching to another language and, if so, is that an issue for the participants? I ask because in Guatemala one of our biggest battles is negotiating the tensions between the 'purist' camp of (generally) elite Maya speakers and the (much larger) group of native speakers who freely codeswitches from Spanish to Mayan languages.

Peter, thanks for the

Peter, thanks for the question.

Basically in Tanzania, we are in the fortunate position of having Swahili as national language, and all literate Rangi speakers will have learned their literacy skills in Swahili (it's the medium of instruction for compulsory primary schooling) and be fluent in it. As Swahili is a Bantu language like Rangi (with 50+% cognates; about the same level as between English and German), borrowing technical terms from Swahili isn't such a big deal in Rangi. And Swahili has had terminology development for decades :)

Of course, even in Swahili there are the two camps you mentioned, so that computer in Swahili can be either 'kompyuta' or 'tarakilishi' - with the former being much more common than the latter -, or the internet can be either 'intaneti' or 'mtandao' - with the former being more common in English-dominated Kenya, and the latter more common in Tanzania, the cradle of Swahili. So, terminology standardization continues to be a big issue even in Tanzania. Martin Benjamin may have more to say on that.


Oliver Stegen wrote:

 So when I started a Facebook group in Rangi earlier this year (Tuluusike Kilaangi = Let’s speak Rangi; cf., I invited the only three Rangi on Facebook who I knew, and within 2 hours, literally two hours, the group had grown to 26 members, and after eight months now, it stands at approx. 250 members with daily traffic.


Thanks for sharing, Oliver. I'd like to know if you've taken a look at the demographics of the group. Are members centered around one particular geographic area (any tendencies that you've noticed)? Has there been any off-line meetings or other campaigns that have emerged as a result of formation of the group?

Re: Demographics

Fascinating idea!

While I have no demographical data on the FB group (and wouldn't know how to go about it if I wanted to elicit it), I once did some demographical research of the Rangi-speaking area (about 10 years ago) which showed that up to 10% of the Rangi population (then constituting about 30,000 of a total of 300,000 Rangi) may be living outside of Irangi proper (i.e. outside of Kondoa District). My impression is that the majority of Rangi FB group members would come from those external Rangi communities and individual emigrants (I remember Rangi in the US, UK and Italy, either for family or study reasons).

Another impression of mine is that a significant proportion of the members have ties to the Haubi valley where 10% of the Rangi population live - it's considered the cradle of the Rangi (even though that's demonstrably not the case historically) and exhibits the most archaic Rangi dialect. One reason behind this predominance of Rangi from Haubi may be its focus on education which has historical and religious reasons - which may be too much to get into here.

I am not aware of any organised off-line meetings or campaigns although individual members have met (and I remember an invitation to grilled goat in a particular village in the Rangi highlands - how many actually were able to attend, I have no idea). Other invitations have been publicised on the list for religious or political meetings but again, I'm not aware of anything consistently organised.

Re: Demographics

Don't you have problems with language change in Rangi (in your case, from Swahili, I would presume)? I'm asking because be are having the same problem with Kapampangan (in the Philippines), where the culprit would be Tagalog (known officially as "Filipino," the national language). This is because you mention an FB group. I'm not really very familiar with Kapampangan on FB, but that on Twitter shows the alarming degree of language change (towards Tagalog) that is observable in Kapampangan society. Many people with Kapampangan surnames use Tagalog instead, and even those who use Kapampangan on Twitter either use Tagalog most of the time, or use a Kapampangan that is so heavily loaded with Tagalog as to sound like a pidgin to members of the older generation.  The truth is that Kapampangan, and many other languages in the Philippines, have been pushed to the brink of death by the official enforcement of Tagalog, which sometimes results in the outright banning of Kapampangan in school and many public or official contexts. Unfortunately, the advent of the new media has reinforced this oppressive situation.  For instance, Tagalog is the default language all over the Philippines for Google, Blogger, Blogspot, and many search engines or social media, even if it is spken natively by only 30% of the population (the figure was much lower, about 21%, at the time Tagalog was made the national language). This  dominance on cyberspace  is  drumming up into the Kapampangan population and the rest of non-Tagalogs that their language is worthless, and that only Tagalog is "modern" and worthy of being used and preserved. Clearly, unless something decisive is done, Kapampangan and other non-Tagalog languages in the Philippines are doomed, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Re: national language pressure (was: Demographics)

Of course, there is quite some pressure on Tanzania's smaller languages from Swahili, and Rangi is no exception. As I wrote earlier, every literate Rangi has acquired their literacy skills in Swahili. So Swahili loanwords abound and the older generation complains about that (but so it is even in Germany with English). Rather than getting into arguments which words are the proper Rangi words (and I've had a number of "purists", who happened not to know English, then promote English loanwords as the "real" Rangi instead of the Swahili loan), I prefer to advocate the use of the under-represented language as much as possible (cf. this 2005 interview), and I would add in whatever medium possible. So, start a Facebook page dedicated to Kapampangan and invite every speaker you know on Facebook. Or start writing a blog in Kapampangan. Or ...

It sounds like you feel passionate about Kapampangan, so you may be the ideal person to do something decisive about its use.

ᏣᎳᎩ (Cherokee) Facebook

For the Cherokee language, Facebook has let us localize the interface in the Cherokee syllabary.  Many Cherokee users have groups in our language and even have user names in the Cherokee syllabary.  If you go to the Translations app on Facebook and change your settings to Cherokee, you will have your Facebook interface in Cherokee.  Not all of it has been translated yet, but we are in the process of working on it. 

This is also the case with

This is also the case with Irish and Northern Sami.  The Facebook application facilitated the translation of the interface to these languages. 

The availability of the interface in minority or lesser-used languages could be considered vital in terms of normalising the use of the languages.  An agreement on key terms, and the availability to provide feedback, report 'bad translations' and change these terms if necessary helps to get over the difficulty of 'elite users' setting the standard at a remove from those that speak the language.

These kinds of projects rely hugely on efforts from individual volunteers.  There have been over 50,000 translations submitted to the Irish language version.  Although it is not entirely complete, it is possible to interact with the site mostly through Irish. 

The northern sami project is not complete to the same degree.  For some reason Facebook has also closed the translation project for this language.  It is therefore uncertain as to when/whether it will be complete.

FB and terminology consistency

Niamh Ní Bhroin wrote:

The northern sami project is not complete to the same degree.  For some reason Facebook has also closed the translation project for this language.  It is therefore uncertain as to when/whether it will be complete.

Facebook froze a lot of their language localizations because they were unable to manage spam and other mischief. Swahili was completely frozen for a while, for this reason. I used some back channels to get my editorial privileges restored, and now I might be the only member of the user community who can actually make changes to (some but not all of) the Swahili interface. Contact me individually if you want an intro to the person who has the magic keys to the languages in the Facebook tundra.

The FB method of getting their interface translated is interesting, laudable, and rife with danger - as they have partially learned. The basic approach is to build a glossary of key terms, get community votes on those terms, and then lock those terms in place. After that, the community can suggest translations of UI strings, one at a time, and can vote on existing suggestions. At some point, a winner is decided and that string is made permanent.

I don't know how well that approach works for languages with big translation communities, but it resulted in a problematic interface for Swahili. Several terms got locked into the system because of the efforts of a user with particular opinions about how the language "should" be, and an understanding about how to work the voting system. Now those terms are cemented into the Swahili FB, and there doesn't seem to be anything that can be done about it. For example, a google search for "rununu" + "kwenye" (kwenye is a term that appears in virtually every Swahili text and is exclusive to Swahili, so it is a good way to filter search results for Swahili) currently gives about 16,800 Google hits, while "simu ya mkononi" (in quotes, so only the entire phrase) gives 3,200,000. That's a pretty clear indicator of which term the language community uses for "mobile phone" - but the FB interface is rununu, top to bottom. Similarly, a set of convoluted variations of "like" is embedded in FB, rather than a simple form that is instantly understandable to anyone but does not display the I'm-a-grammar-whiz showoffiness of "this item [that belongs to noun class 9] has caused people to be pleased."

I see two problems with localizations that go off on their own whims in designating interface terms:

1) In the case of languages with many different localization projects, you can get numerous attempts at glossing the same source term. If "file" is rendered differently by Google, by FB, by Microsoft, by Gnome, on Drupal sites, etc, then the user community ends up being completely confused - Outlook tells me to attach a jalada, but Gmail asks me to upload a faili, how do I turn my jalada into a faili? (Not to mention that "attach" and "upload" might also vary.)

2) If a localization is done using terms that are unfamiliar and impenetrable to users, they will not understand it, won't use it, and might be turned off the entire concept of using localized software. This is what happened to the Microsoft Swahili localizations, for example - they started off terrible, and even the most recent attempt to get things on track have not gotten Windows or Office to the point where you can figure out many features in the Swahili interface. Since the localized version of the product is thus harder to use than the English version for the educated people who are the main users of computers in East Africa, very few people have made the switch to the Swahili version, even though it is a free installation for people with registered English versions.

To Microsoft's credit, they recognize the problem and have taken some steps to address it, notably participating in the terminology standardization effort that has been involved with. However, their enthusiasm ran against their budget wall - at this point, Swahili localization is a guaranteed money loser, since they are giving away the language product and the fact of its availability does not increase their Windows and Office sales.

This is where other languages might have an advantage. Because many of the languages being discussed in this dialogue are coming to the party later than Swahili, there have been fewer diverse attempts to localize software or establish a terminology for doing so. Based on the Swahili experience, I would suggest that people seize the moment to establish ICT terminology, using community validation procedures to make sure that speakers of the language will understand the chosen terms within their technology contexts.

Importantly, these terms should also be made public alongside (1) the source (English) terms, (2) definitions of the English terms in English, and (3) definitions of the local language terms in the local language. This way, people who are used to ICT in English will have a reference resource to help them make the switch (aha, this is how we're going to say "file" in Maya, I'm on board with that), and people starting out from the indigenous language will be able to use the definitions in their own language to unveil things that might be opaque to a novice user, such as what exactly a file is. 

We've done this for 2500 terms for 10 African languages, minus the community validation process, and now we're about to use new and improved software to do the same for Chichewa (Edmund is standing by to lead this, as soon as the programming is complete) including the community validation, and to run another attempt at harmonization/ validation for the messy Swahili terms. To put it in Facebook terms, contact with people from other language communities who would be interested in exploiting what we've been working on would cause me to be pleased.

Thank You

Hi Martin,

This sounds really interesting.  Thank you for your offer.  I will contact you by mail and can hopefully set up contact with some participants of the Sámi group that would be interested in taking this further.

It sounds like there is a lot of duplication of effort happening in terms of drawing up lists of terms for localisation.  Perhaps it would be a good idea to start a centralised project where the key terms could be posted in English (and any other relevant languages) and then other language translations could be uploaded.  If there was a possibility for community participation and approval at this level it may help move things along.  If this project was sufficiently promoted (for example by Unesco) it could be a first port of call for people wanting to work on a localisation project.

Do you think something like that would be worthwhile?

centralized terminology project

Hi Niamh,

Short answer, yes, I think something like that would be worthwhile.

Longer answer: was our first attempt at a centralized terminology project. Now we are almost ready to launch generation 2.0, as soon as the software is completed. We don't currently have funds to actively support new language groups, but the system will be open so that people can take advantage of what's there on a voluntary basis.

In a nutshell, source terms are listed in English along with English definitions and other information. Then a platform is provided for groups to produce those same concepts in their language, including definitions in their language. Most importantly, we are creating a system to solicit and learn from community feedback, so that term lists can be validated by their eventual users before being finalized. All of the results are searchable, downloadable, and open license.

I also like Kevin's earlier suggestion about having a field for back-translations - I'll be meeting with the programmer tomorrow, and hopefully we can worm that into the final product.

(Re how to get involved, we'll talk off-forum - anyone else who is interested please contact me)

facebook localizations

We have not done Facebook localization of Mayan languages, although this is something that we have thought about as pretty technically easy and something on our checklist of things to get done some day. For those of you who have done this, how difficult was the process. Any pointers for those of us who still need to get this done?

Hi Peter.  I am not too sure

Hi Peter.  I am not too sure how difficult it was to begin the translation process to Irish or Sámi but my understanding is that the Facebook Translation application facilitates this quite well.  I have observed the process and tried out the application and it is pretty seamless from my point of view.  Perhaps Kevin Scannell would have more to add on that particular point.

What I do know is that it takes significant effort from individuals to get the process to a stage of completion.  So although it is technically potentially quite straightforward, the level of community invovlement should not be underestimated.  The top translator in the Irish project submitted over 17,000 translations, with eight others submitting over 1,000.  This does not take account of the voting and approving of translations, and the discussions that take place amongst the community to address particular issues. 

The difference is clear when you look at the northern sámi version.  Less people have been involved in the translation project and less translations have been submitted.  It is therefore not possible to fully interact with the platform in northern sámi.

The importance of evolving the community here is also crucial, as you have previously discusssed.

Beir bua!

Facebook translations

I agree with Niamh that the translation interface for Facebook is really quite slick - one is able to translate bits of the site "live" while using Facebook in the usual way.   There are lots of benefits to this: (1) instant gratification, once you translate something it goes "live" on the site (2) you see the strings you are translating in context (lack of context is one of the hardest things about translating applications like Firefox), and (3) it effectively guarantees that the highest-profile strings on the site get handled first.

Niamh is also correct that there is a substantial amount of work to be done; it would be a lot to do for one or two people.   That said, I'm a big believer in partial translations.  Having 30% of Facebook in Hawaiian, say, would be better than 0%.   Not everyone agrees with this - Mozilla has had a policy for a long time that all officially-released translations need to be 100% complete - basically for "quality reasons". 

The downside of the Facebook translation model is that you get some awful translations, especially for a language like Irish where there are lots of enthusiastic semi-speakers/learners.  But all things considered, the "voting system" that Martin talked about above has worked quite well for us; there are still some bad translations but I'd say the quality has risen over time.  The terminology issues that arose for Swahili weren't really a problem for us, because the "official" terms won out in the initial voting process.   (Again, I'd change a handful of official terms if I had my way, e.g. I'd prefer "beathaisnéisín" (little biography) to the ugly cognate "próifíl" for "profile").

The real problem is that many languages are not available for translation, and from what I've heard Facebook has no plans to open up translation to new languages any time soon (although see Martin's comments above!)   I've been looking into a technical solution that would allow a speaker of an unsupported language to install a browser addon that "overlays" translations of the site automatically, using some Javascript.  I first heard about this idea from Neskie Manuel (Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia) who implemented a prototype last year for his language of Secwepemctsín.  Neskie passed away tragically in May of this year; I'd like to push this idea forward in his honor - let me know if you'd be interested in trying an alpha version when it's ready.

We in the Mayan language

We in the Mayan language community would be interested. We have been very bummed that we missed the rush on Facebook before the closed off new languages.

I had no idea Neskie passed

I had no idea Neskie passed away! We were working with him at Cherokee Nation to create a script that would transcode our old non-Unicode font documents into Unicode since our font which was basically using English code points mapped with Cherokee glyphs. Since there are several Cherokee Unicode fonts now we are looking into converting all our old non-Unicode font documents into Unicode. Neskie had a working prototype but then we never heard from him again. I'm SO sorry to hear this tragic news.

Continuing to strengthen the Swahili language community

The following story is not a story of success in building an online community. I wish it could be. However, at this stage it is more a story about what I felt I could contribute as an individual without much influence in the target language community. On the one hand, I’ve been promoting (mainly Tanzanian) minority languages like Rangi (and that is a community where I have some standing in). On the other hand, not only minority languages are under-respresented. Considering the millions of speakers which Swahili has (if second-language speakers are included, some estimates go up to 100 million!), its representation on the web is rather poor when compared to European languages, most of which have fewer numbers of speakers.

Now, ten years in rural Tanzania didn’t really prepare me (nor give me the connections) to build a Swahili-speaking online community. However, I acquired good written Swahili (my work had included written communication with local government offices and other institutions as well as preparing training material in Swahili). So when I encountered the Swahili wikipedia ( in April 2006 (it had 392 articles at the time), I thought that I could contribute. There wasn’t much of a community; it was mainly American, British and German individuals who quietly and persistently wrote Swahili articles in their spheres of interest (at the time, there was only one Swahili mother tongue speaker editing regularly). Predominantly, I’ve been using self-designed templates for articles about people (e.g. “XY (born xx.xx.xxxx; died xx.xx.xxxx) was a [[writer]] from the country of [[Z]]. Mainly s/he wrote [[novels/poetry/theater plays/…]]. In [[19xx]], s/he won the [[Nobel Prize of Literature]].” – embellished with categorisation and interwikis) and about languages (e.g. “XY is a [[Bantu language]] spoken in [[Z]]. In [[19xx]], the language was estimated to have x speakers. According to [[Malcolm Guthrie]], it is further classified as {A-S.10-90}.”) Of course, every single contributor hoped for a Swahili wikipedia community but none of us seemed to be in a position to do anything about it. Rather, our motto seemed to be that we were writing content for the future, for the time when there would be an online Swahili community who was looking for information.

Five-and-a-half years, ~22,000 articles and two Google challenges later, there still doesn’t seem to be much of a Swahili wikipedia community. Still, one of three moderators (or “bureaucrats” as they are called in wiki-lingo) is a native speaker of Swahili based in Dar es Salaam. Also, the Google competitions inspired the establishment of a national Kenyan Wikimedia chapter (; the members are mainly students who feel more comfortable in English than in Swahili. So, while that chapter has successfully implemented some projects (e.g. installing offline versions of the English Wikipedia on school computers without internet access and giving introductions to the Kiwix software required to read the .zim files), we are still waiting for local enthusiasm for and involvement in the Swahili wikipedia. I am confident that its time will come.

Hawaiian context

We began an online community for Hawaiian speakers back in 1993, launched it in 94, and have maintained it ever since. It's called Leokī, and based on the FirstClass intranet system. From the beginning, the owners of the software (which has changed at least twice since then) have allowed us to localize it so that all interface elements were in Hawaiian. Pre-Unicode there were issues since we had to use custom fonts which need to be installed on every computer that used it. Even post-Unicode, it took several years before FC became Unicode compliant, and only at the point that we were going to abandon it for lack of support. This system was very popular with teachers and student in the immersion program, and while we tried to support other speakers, the technological barriers of installing fonts, keyboards and other support software was discouraging for them, particularly since we lacked the resources to support all but our own staff and the school.

We noted a significant drop off in student use of the system with the advent of social networks, and had looked to set up our own, including Ning (which I did completely translate into Hawaiian but never launched it). I see the appeal of social nets to allow people to self-organize and affiliate, and eliminate much of the administrative work that we used to do in order to maintain users, permissions, etc. I would definitely like to begin translation of Facebook, but have a few other pressing projects to finish up, first. 

Here are a couple of articles on Leokī, one of which I co-wrote, and another from Wired Magazine back in the mid-90s.

Virtual + In-Person Meetups

Even though virtual communities have the ability to break through geographic distances and keep people in constant communication, adding in-person meet-ups when possible can reinforce relationships and make it easier to work together online.

I've been working with a group of Aymara students from the Jaqi Aru project in El Alto, Bolivia. One of their primary activities is putting together an Aymara-version of Global Voices Online, making available content about current events and global culture to its readers. While the volunteer translators work on their content at their own pace at home or at a cyber cafe, the monthly meetings have made such a difference in retention and ongoing support. At the monthly meetings, there are conversations about particular terms that may not have an equivalent in Aymara, as well as an opportunity to share their latest translation. The meetings often take place at a cyber cafe where the team can improve their skills on Wordpress.

However, most importantly it allows them to get to know one another and put a face to the name.

So I would recommend when possible in-person meetups (even if you just get together for coffee or a meal and not talk 'shop') can be a way to build these communities so that it can carry over to the virtual world.


What is the process for adding a language to Global Voices?

I completely agree, Eddie!  Having in-person meet-ups is a great way to build a stronger community.  It build accountability and respect among the members.  It's great to hear that this group of Aymara students are meeting up in person in addition to their online work!

One quick question about your utilization of Global Voices Online:

risingvoices wrote:

I've been working with a group of Aymara students from the Jaqi Aru project in El Alto, Bolivia. One of their primary activities is putting together an Aymara-version of Global Voices Online, making available content about current events and global culture to its readers.

I added a comment the other day asking if anyone if anyone could add their language to Global Voices online.  Do you know what the process is for adding a language to the list?  It sounds like Global Voices is a powerful platform to get stories out to a wide audience in many languages...and it could be a powerful platform for keeping these languages relavent and accessible.  It would be great to know your thoughts on this! 

Global Voices Lingua

kantin wrote:

I added a comment the other day asking if anyone if anyone could add their language to Global Voices online.  Do you know what the process is for adding a language to the list?  It sounds like Global Voices is a powerful platform to get stories out to a wide audience in many languages...and it could be a powerful platform for keeping these languages relavent and accessible.  It would be great to know your thoughts on this! 

Definitely, we're always interested in adding new languages to the roster of Lingua sites at Global Voices. I would recommend emailing our Multi-Lingual Editor Paula Góes - paula.goes AT globalvoicesonline DOT org to start the conversation.

There are many different factors to consider when starting a new Lingua site and each language community is unique in terms of the context in which it operates. For example, some of the sites in Western languages (German, Italian, Japanese, etc.) count on volunteer translators that have fast and accessible broadband internet connection which makes participating much more easier. In El Alto, Bolivia, none of the translators at home so they must use cyber cafes which vary in quality and in speed, and it becomes an added cost for the sake of volunteering. But there are always ways to work through that challenge, such as partnerships with cyber cafes, fundraising opportunities, etc.

The site would definitely need a committed editor who can help mobilize volunteer translators, ensure content quality, and be the leader in making sure the site grows and remains active. The editor also acts as an important liaison between the language community and the GV Editorial Staff.

However, each site does receive a lot of technical and moral support from our wonderful community and what once started with one alternate language site (Global Voices in Chinese) has now grown to 19 sites.

I'd also be happy to discuss with any language community interested in learning more how we have worked with GV in Aymara. 

eddie [at]



Fun project from my colleagues Durbin Feeling & Joseph Erb!

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