I spent nearly an hour on Skype with Conn Ó Muíneacháin in Ireland this morning. The topic: minority languages in the social network space. I was sick as a dog all weekend, and while lying in bed had a lot of time to ponder our college’s next move in regards to providing telecommunication services through the medium of Hawaiian. While Conn has no specialized training in language perpetuation or sociology (nor do I), I felt that he is very much a kindred spirit in his desire to be able to use his language in as many daily contexts as are allowed by circumstances and by those he interacts with regularly, and provide opportunity for like-minded individuals to use the language as well as well.
When we started Leok? some 15 years ago, it was the only telecommunication system that was available to many users. Students by and large did not have email, and while many teachers and administrators did have email, they found Leok? to be a great way to communicate with other Hawaiian speakers, and we did provide a gateway by which they could communicate with the English speaking world via Internet email. As the years have progressed many Leok? users have availed themselves of free email accounts on services such as Hotmail, and more recently have discovered the joys of MySpace and other social networks. Consequently, the use of Leok? by speakers of Hawaiian began to decline.
I discussed this issue with Conn, and he pretty much echoed the realization I had arrived at – that the best we can do is to provide the opportunity to Hawaiian speakers to use the technology in ways that they would normally use technology anyway, and provide the tools to do it in Hawaiian if they choose to do so. It makes no sense to compel use of Hawaiian for people to access most of our services. For those that would prefer to do email, chat, or get involved in discussions in English, there are too many alternative for them to choose from.
If we were able to provide a perfect MySpace clone, only in Hawaiian, how attractive would it be to people? Social networking spaces are about building bridges and forming communities based on common interest (music, ultimate fighting, fly fishing) and shared experiences (families, classmates, neighborhoods). Language exclusivity would certainly throw a monkey wrench in that community building, and let to their own device people will default to the lowest common denominator anyway. In our case, this means English. If I built a social networking space that dealt with technology issues such as localization, UTF-8 support in Web 2.0 applications and other such minutiae, and restricted it to Hawaiian speakers, it would attract and audience of perhaps three (if I was lucky).
Conn pointed out that he uses Google as Gaeilge because it is available to him. We don’t have those kinds of services available in Hawaiian, and I have contacted the Google localization team to determine if it is feasible for us to localize some of their services into Hawaiian, and I am investigating others. I’m beginning to think that our limited resources and man-hours (mostly my own) would best be invested in localizing popular web packages like Moodle, WordPress, and Drupal which would be deployed on a large number of publicly accessible services, and the user could then choose to implement a Hawaiian language interface and provide content in the language as well.
I’m considering a three-pronged strategy:
- To continue to develop and support Leok? with a completely Hawaiian language interfaces, and maintain its Hawaiian-only content for communication between Hawaiian speakers who develop curriculum for immersion schools, train and provide other support services to the Hawaiian-speaking community. This includes our College, the ‘Aha P?nana Leo and a few others who function in a completely Hawaiian language environment anyway.
- To translate (if possible) the Lotus Notes interface into Hawaiian for the Hawaiian immersion sites, and work with the DOE to provide a Hawaiian-only environment with the predominantly English-speaking DOE Notes network. Most, if not all DOE teachers and students, including those involved in Hawaiian immersion already have Notes accounts. This lessens our support load and restricts it to localization and technical issues, not providing direct support to users.
- To provide Hawaiian localizations for popular open-source packages like WordPress and Moodle, which will allow users who wish to choose a Hawaiian language interface for their sites if they choose to do so.
Now I need to make two or three clones of myself to pull it off while I work on my Ph.d. in ethnomusicology!
Mahalo a nui, Conn, for being such a great sounding board.