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Lingua Café: Found in Translation!

14.09.2023 | Authors: Thalia Rahme, Shaimaa Alessai and Soledad Magnone

Read in Spanish, اللغة العربية and Français

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Between 2021 and 2022, Lingua Cafe (LC) connected digital rights, open technology and internet freedom ​​​​​​activists who have a knack for languages. The LC monthly online sessions were interactive, audience-led and promoted Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and more. The exchange brought us closer together by talking about different topics, such as sports, culture, festivities, and food from a socio-linguistic perspective.

In 2023, LC took a step back to build upon its past experiences and rethink its contribution as a space for Networking, Language Advocacy, Language Skill Building, Language Inclusion and Equity. This last semester of 2023 we will organise chat-based community learning sessions, taking place on a dedicated channel at TeamCommUNITY MatterMost. These will feature special guests who will co-facilitate conversations on issues such as a) language translations fostering communities of learning; b) digital technologies enhancing language inclusion; and c) collective efforts and overlooked voices in language inclusion, and much more. 

LC Chats Session 1:  Mozilla Festival & constellations for language inclusion

Our first LC Chat session was co-hosted with Laura Vidal, who shared her background in language inclusion and experiences through podcasts and MozFest. Laura has been working on language inclusion with the Mozilla Festival since 2021. She’s also a doctor in informal learning, specialising in online communities and intercultural exchange. She shared her experience with other collaborators and researchers as an example of the “constellation” method while discussing the MozFest strategy. In this event they made an effort by holding a language inclusion workshop, creating an audio version of it, publishing language inclusion guidelines, and blogging about the procedure. Her answers to the LC questions can be found on the event’s Wiki page in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. These were shared at the start of the session as a workaround to translate the session which was organised in English.

Deep Dive

In this article, we summarise conversations that stemmed from our first Lingua Café Chats and beyond. This text was meant also as a second effort to make the spontaneous exchanges among participants accessible in different languages. Chats spanned from defining what we mean by language inclusion, issues of accents, and discrimination, to the field of language translation and the division of labour in the digital rights community.

So what is language inclusion?

According to the University of Queensland guide to using inclusive language:

“inclusive language shows respect and promotes the acceptance and worth of all individuals by avoiding words, phrases, or tones that belittle, insult, exclude, stereotype, patronize, or trivialize people based on their group membership or specific attributes. It aims to communicate in a manner that is accessible, respectful, and empowering to all members of the audience, without restricting free speech or conforming to political correctness. It acknowledges the evolving nature of language and encourages the application of inclusive language principles over-relying on fixed phrases, as language meanings and connotations can change rapidly over time.”

The LC Chat discussion sparked accounts and testimonies from Latin America to MENA and Europe about language inclusivity/inclusion but also language exclusivity/exclusion. One thing is sure, the term “inclusion” is a broad spectrum and covers many sub-components: from disabilities, gender and social constructs, to integration and acculturation at the same time.

For instance, that the Académie Française, France’s ultimate authority on the French language, rejected the gender-neutral style (in 2017), a move later endorsed by the French government (in 2021) with a formal ban on the use of that style. One small progress was the authorization to feminize official titles, ranks and functions. 

Inclusion or Exclusion?

Inclusion is as broad in its definition as language is where we implicitly include, dialects, accents, sounds, writing, multilingualism, etc. In that regard, accents and voice tones play an important role in “excluding people” or at least stigmatizing individuals. Day to day, the politics of language In the digital age, technology reinforces this punishment to accents that do not resemble colonial power.

Traditional and social media normalises language exclusion, observed in many cases such as comedy shows in Lebanon that parody people with poor English (also frequent among Egyptian Instagramers and Tiktokers ). The problem can also be affected by gender. One of the most subtle aspects of homophobia in Lebanon for instance is by portraying “male homosexuals” as having a feminine or “effiminated” voice tone. Many highly popular satirical shows have resorted to such a kind of humour.

In Venezuela, there was a whole section of a comedy show devoted to immigrant Portuguese and Colombian communities. In Spain, Uruguayan diasporas try to disguise their accent. Yet, this is not limited to migrants, individuals can get mocked in their own country for having a different accent than the predominant one (often that of the Capital), especially those coming from rural areas or remote cities …

This exclusion can be enshrined in tech tools, for instance, the automatic audio transcript tool “Hyperaudio” was much less able to recognise correctly accents from India when used for the No Minor Futures Campaign. ​​​​​​​

Accent discrimination is called “Glottophobia” and in France for instance could lead to up to 3 three-year jail sentence and 45.000 euros.

The Unknown Soldiers Who Make Inclusion Happen

As stated, language inclusivity is not a natural process and there are many opponents. As such, behind the scenes, many are working hard to induce change. In the digital rights community, a bulk of the translations rely on volunteers, who invest time and resources in an effort that often results invisible. As was highlighted by the Latin American team at the LocalizationLab 2021 Summit, translation regards significant aspects for the effectiveness of resources and tools, for instance, by countering biases in better-off settings. Furthermore, translation solutions benefit organisations based in Europe and North America, which are not equated from these regions to support partners from the rest of the world.

Finally, let’s remember that promoting language inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all solution and does not mean inclusivity will happen on the ground. Nevertheless, key ingredients often overlooked are opening spaces for creativity and encouraging freedom of expression. Funding to support local and international efforts is instrumental for these, not to reproduce traditional structures of privilege.

What’s Next

Don’t miss our next Lingua Café Chats to continue the conversation around actions by different actors across the community to foster digital inclusion and languages.

Join the TeamCommUNITY MatterMost and Lingua Cafe channel. Subscribe to its newsletter to stay connected.

Around Portugal in September? Join the LC Chats at the Global Gathering Feira.