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Free/Open Source Software and the Preservation of Culture
Jamais Cascio, 5 Jul 05

From the F/OSS online journal NewsForge comes a timely reminder of one of the less-often-discussed values of open software development: the ability to customize to meet the needs of people who speak declining languages. Bruce Byfield looks at the version of OpenOffice.org customized to work in the Scots Gaelic language, an official language of Scotland now spoken by less than 2% of the populace. This fall, the Gaelic OpenOffice.org will be distributed to schools across Scotland.

The project began because Gaelic teachers were frustrated that students had to use English language software. Having Gaelic software, [Project Leader Evan] Brown says, "helps to provide an immersive language environment."

In other words, users of OpenOffice.org Gaelic are likely to learn better because they do not have to use an interface in one language while trying to think and write in another. Also, although Brown does not mention it, the simple fact that Gaelic is being used in a software program might help convince students that it is a living language, in much same way that Gaelic TV shows do. Both are evidence that the language is part of modern life and not just a museum curio.

Software in a language spoken by a small number of people will not be enough, in and of itself, to stop that language's decline. But it can slow the process -- and as information technology becomes a greater part of the global economy, and as the free/open source philosophy continues to spread, it could in the future serve as a platform upon which to start the process of restoring the language and culture.

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