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Languages: Jean Came Poulard on Haitian Creole

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Indigenous Tweets project and republished with permission

Our second interview in this series looks at the Haitian Creole language (Kreyòl Ayisyen), which is spoken by more than 10 million people around the world. Most, of course, live in Haiti, but there are also substantial speaker communities in the Dominican Republic, Canada and the US (in New York and South Florida especially), and in several other countries as well. Haitian Creole is something of an exceptional case on the Indigenous Tweets web site, as it does not fit any known definition of “indigenous”, having its roots in the colonial language of French going back to the 18th century. Nevertheless, the language fits well with our mission, as it is facing many of the same obstacles as indigenous and minority languages in other parts of the world, competing as it does with standard French as the language of education, literature, and computing in Haiti. It does have some legal status, being an official language of Haiti since 1987, and being taught in primary and secondary schools in the country.

For almost two years I have been working with the company Logipam [fr] in Haiti, helping to develop and promote open source software and resources for Haitian Creole. The massive earthquake that devastated the country on January 12, 2010 disrupted this work for time, but over the last year Logipam has returned to work with renewed energy and dedication. Below is a picture of the Logipam team; from left to right, Jean Came Poulard (@jcpoulard), Monstapha Hilaire (@pwal2k_rot), Eder Hilaire (@kannkale), Metuschael Prosper, Erick Toussaint (@rickytweetht), Emile Poulard (@pouledge), and Jean Baptiste Marc (@metminwi). Jean Came Poulard is an IT Manager at HELP and the Developer Manager of Logipam; he spoke with me about the current state of Haitian Creole and his work with Logipam.

Team Logipam. Photo via Indigenous Tweets.

Kevin P Scannell: What opportunities are there to use Haitian Creole online? Is internet connectivity or access to computers an issue for your community? What kinds of software and web sites are there in the language?

Jean Came Poulard: As Haitian Creole is spoken by all the citizen of Haiti, Haitian Creole websites and social media in this language can be considered as an element of inclusion for the population. This inclusion will create a new era in some domains such as E-Learning, E-commerce, etc.

Internet connectivity remains a serious issue in Haiti — it is poor and very expensive (US $60 per month for 256 Kb/s). One hour of connectivity in a CyberCafe costs one US dollar. The majority of social media users post messages from their phones as smart phones become more and more popular, costing US $25 a month for smart phones.

In late September 2009, the Logipam team started work on an open source Haitian Creole Spell Checker, with your help. One month later, we had released the first version of the spell checker (named “Korektè òtograf kreyòl (KòK)“), compatible with Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice/LibreOffice. Now the Logipam team is localizing Firefox using Narro and 36% of the work is already done.

Organizing editing work for the KòK spell checker. Photo via Indigenous Tweets.

KPS: I know many readers of this blog who speak other languages will be interested in translating programs like Firefox. You mentioned Narro, which is a web site that allows you to translate Firefox in your browser; nothing to download or install, just register and start translating. What are your impressions of it?

JCP: It's great, a really good tool. A slow connection can sometimes be a problem, but otherwise we can translate just as fast as with offline tools.

KPS: Many speakers of indigenous and minority languages are reluctant to use their languages online because they don't know computing terminology, or they don't have good keyboards, or they are simply more comfortable in a language like English or French. What is the general attitude toward using Haitian Creole online?

JCP: The Haitian Creole speakers have similar issues to the ones listed above given that many computer users have learned to use computers in English or in French. With that comes the problem of Creole computing terminology. Nevertheless many signs show that the use of Haitian Creole online is increasing. For example, the Indigenous Tweets site proves just how many Tweeter account holders use Haitian Creole on the platform. Many other blogs, forums, mailing lists have plenty of Haitian Creole messages.

KPS: I mentioned above that many indigenous languages lack computing terminology. Is this an issue for your language? How is/was terminology developed? Is there a “language board” or are terms developed naturally by the community? If there are official terms, how are they communicated to the community?

JCP: Creole computing terminology is an issue that can be resolved given that a large majority of Creole scientific terminology is derived from French or/and English. For instance, people currently use either “Prent” or “Enprime” to say “Print”. The first one comes from the English word “print” and the second from French “Imprimer”.

The Haitian Constitution recognizes a Haitian Creole Academy which must, as the French Academy, monitor and regulate the language; but this institution never concretely came to life. Therefore, the terms continue to be developed naturally by the users. The chaos is such that computer classes are taught in Creole with French books supported by English computer software.

KPS: Are there other special challenges your community faces in terms of developing technology for the language and/or communicating online? For example – differences in dialects, different spelling systems, problem with fonts, lack of computing expertise in the community, lack of interest from software vendors like Microsoft/Apple/Google.

JCP: In general, there are few scientific productions in Haitian Creole. In the technology field the main challenges for Haitian Creole are both a lack of computing expertise and a lack of interest from major software vendors in Haiti and abroad. Logipam strongly believes that Open Source can be an alternative to this situation. So far as I know, Logipam, which has a very small team (less than 5 active people), is the only institution that has an interest in localizing Open Source Software in Haiti. Big vendors such as Microsoft or Apple, even if they are relatively well represented in Haiti, don't really show interest in developing solutions in Haitian Creole. Google is the only one that has published two solutions in Haitian Creole: a search website and the Google Translator, but as of today no spell checkers are available for Microsoft or Google Chromium.

KPS: Are young people using the language online? Do you think social media sites like facebook and twitter are helping encourage language use by younger speakers?

JCP: The majority of Internet users in Haiti are young people. Facebook has a lot of comments and messages in Haitian Creole. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Hi5, Haitian connection, Sakapfet give a solid push to the use of Haitian Creole online. With at least 500,000 people using Twitter in Haiti, social media really enhances the presence of Haitian Creole online.

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

JCP: A vision in ten years! This is a very difficult question for me to answer considering a long list of unknown parameters I would have to deal with. But I really would like to see greater implementation of Haitian Creole in the education system in Haiti; and also see more publications in Creole in the scientific arena, as we are starting to see in literature. As a matter of fact, more books have been edited lately (even classic translations) in Haitian Creole. Moreover, a daily newspaper in Haitian Creole would be great boost to the language. In term of software, my team and I would like to see an operating system such as Ubuntu entirely translated in Haitian Creole. Our aim is to work to make that happen.

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