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Study Will Explore Best Practices for Creating Free Knowledge in Indigenous Languages on Wikipedia

Vikipetã, o Wikipedia en guaraní, es una versión de la enciclopedia libre en internet que cualquier persona puede editar y que busca ser la “suma de todo el conocimiento humano".

Vikipetã, or Wikipedia in Guarani, is an online version of the free encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone and which strives to offer “the sum of all human knowledge”.

Cempohualxochitl, Ñe'ẽpoty Guaraníme y Qhichwa simi are just a few of the articles found on Wikipedia written in some of the indigenous languages found throughout Latin America, such as Nahuatl (Huiquipedia), Quechua (Wikipidiya) and Guarani (Vikipetã).

Founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales describes Wikipedia as “… an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language”. The Wikimedia Foundation's main page also states:

“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's our commitment”.

Following this principle, the site was first launched in January 2001 and currently provides more than 37 million articles in 287 languages, written on a cooperative basis by volunteers from around the world.

Languages in which the most number of Wikipedia articles are written:

Source: Wikipedia Statistics, October 2016.

The number of Wikipedia entries published in indigenous Latin American languages is, however, far less, and currently stands at 19,900 articles in Quechua, 9,940 articles in Nahuatl, 3,830 in Aymara and 3,128 in Guarani.

It is well known that indigenous languages around the world are slowly facing extinction; this eventuality would inevitably lead to the loss of a source of linguistic information, as well as native customs and traditions, and a clear way in which to understand regional historical processes.

When a language disappears, a unique vision of the world, encompassing its own value system, specific philosophy and peculiar cultural characteristics, is also lost. Its extinction represents an irretrievable loss of unique knowledge, which has been assimilated into the language over many centuries.

The way in which Wikipedia defines itself can be summarised as such: “Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia based on “wiki” technology, which allows anyone to make changes to content published by any user, directly from a web browser. Wikipedia is multilingual and has been developed as a collaborative project by tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world in their respective languages”.

It is evident that in order for native people to fully participate in emerging knowledge societies, they must be able to fully use their own language online. As such, reliance on digital platforms such as Wikipedia narrows the digital divide and the existing knowledge gap as far as possible. It is therefore crucial that indigenous languages and their communities have access to a plurilingual internet, with high-quality content created not only on an international and regional level, but also on a local level.

From a cultural point of view, speakers of non-dominant languages must be able to express themselves online in their native language in a meaningful way. The Internet should be a plurilingual arena, in which each culture and each language can enjoy its own space.

And it is in this context that we see questions arise regarding the way in which these indigenous languages have been able to establish themselves on this platform. Who are the editors promoting this site? What are their motivations? What challenges do they face?

To answer a few of these questions and to support future Wikipedia projects in native languages, the organisation Global Voices initiated a project into the study of Wikipedia in indigenous languages in October 2016 through their outreach initiative, Rising Voices, and with the backing of the Project Grants Program from the Wikimedia Foundation. This is effectively a knowledge-creation initiative, whose main purpose is to document and evaluate Wikipedia's position with respect to indigenous languages, in order to determine current capabilities and the difficulties involved with establishing and maintaining long term participation, in particular by native speakers.

Researcher and digital activist of the Zapotec Language, Rodrigo Pérez Ramírez, will head up the study in close cooperation with existing indigenous-language editors at Wikipedia, as well as with the Wikimedia Foundation and its affiliates, readers, indigenous organisations, academics and Global Voices.

The purposes of the study are as follows:

  • To document the history and context of 25 indigenous-language Wikipedia sites through interviews with the relevant editors, and to examine any technical, linguistic and sociocultural challenges more closely.
  • To analyse current demand, as well as the impact and potential use of these Wikipedia projects by a number of different populations.
  • To determine good practices and lessons learnt, and to carry out recommendations for future initiatives, which will be based on the evidence, relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability and impact achieved by this indigenous-language Wikipedia project.

The study will be observational, descriptive and exploratory in nature, and will call for an assessment of the achievements, successes, and challenges of indigenous-language projects on Wikipedia. It will also examine the usefulness of this contribution, which has enabled access to information written in indigenous languages. Nonetheless, the underlying educational purpose of this exercise is to rationalise the knowledge and experiences of indigenous-language editors in cyberspace, as well as to analyse both the possibilities and the challenges they may face.

The study will be divided into two parts on a methodological basis; the first part will entail a qualitative and critical review, in order to identify the capability and difficulties involved with ensuring native speakers are able to fully participate in the creation of Wikipedia projects in indigenous languages. The second part will follow a more empirical path, and will seek to apply ethnographic methodologies to determine good practices and lessons learnt, and to carry out recommendations for future initiatives based on the evidence, relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability and impact caused by this indigenous-language Wikipedia project.

In the short-term, the study will run between the November 20, 2016, and the May 30, 2017. Geographically, it will be restricted to documenting existing cases in Latin America.

The study also aims to gather information from a number of different participants involved in the research, in the hope that their opinions will help strengthen the initiative, allow conclusions to be reached and recommend how to better support indigenous communities with creating and broadcasting content in local languages both online and through mass communication methods, at the same time introducing new languages to the digital world, and with plurilingual access to digital resources in cyberspace.

Wikipedia in indigenous languages offers enormous potential for improving the free movement of information and ideas throughout the world.

Progress on the study will be made available via the web page Activismo Lenguas and via Wikimedia's Meta site (in progress), where an online survey will be set up to enable readers to give feedback and contribute to the study.

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