LANGUAGE, INCLUSION AND THE CHALLENGE OF LITERACY The advantages of literacy have given an edge to cultures that use written languages while cultures whose language remains unwritten have to play catch up. In addition, studies have shown a causative correlation between literacy and human development. To this end, literacy is recognised as one of the indices of human development and lots of efforts go into the objective of increasing literacy levels around the world.
Due to the causative correlation between literacy and human development, illiterate people living within cultures of written languages are helped to become literate while efforts are also made to develop writing systems for yet to be written languages. However, despite the best of these efforts to improve literacy levels, illiterate people still abound around the world and they continue to live with reduced capacity to participate fully in development processes.
Tunde Adegbola If people are able to communicate their ideas only to people within their immediate physical environment, they lose the capacity to spread such ideas far and wide. There are two important consequences of this limitation. On the one hand, a limitation is imposed on the population of people that may be able to benefit from such ideas, while on the other hand, such ideas may be starved of the inputs and refinements from a sufficiently wide number of people that could have helped to improve and enhance them for the benefit of humanity. Human understanding of the natural environment leads to a capacity for the prediction and control of the behaviour of the elements and this capacity has important implications for human development. The level of understanding of the natural environment by humans depends fundamentally on the capacity to build ideas upon ideas and knowledge upon knowledge. To this extent, the capacity to share information and knowledge is fundamental to human development.
As the global community becomes more connected and the global economic system tends towards becoming a single, common market place, people whose languages remain unwritten will continue to suffer the consequences of the temporal and spatial limitations of their languages while literate people will continue to derive advantages from the fact that their languages are written. The global community will be the worse for such inequity.
MULTIMEDIA AND MULTIMODALITY Developments in information and communication technologies (ict) have changed and are continuing to change our world in unprecedented ways. They have had dramatic effects on the way we communicate, learn and manage knowledge. One important way in which ict has affected the way we communicate, learn and manage knowledge is in the presentation of information in the form of multimedia. Multimedia refers to a combination of various content forms such as text, audio, still images, video, animation and interactive content. It contrasts with traditional media such as printed materials, in that it can engage the auditory, visual, tactile and other human perceptual modes either concurrently or sequentially.
Probably the most salient characteristic of multimedia in communication, learning and knowledge management is its capacity to provide Tunde Adegbola information in multiple media and various modes. This capacity of multimedia not only serves to enhance access to information but also helps to heighten understanding.
Books traditionally contained mainly written texts and still images sometimes served to illustrate the texts. The book as a medium for the management of information and knowledge is generally limited to these two media forms. With multimedia however, content can be presented in written texts complemented not only with still images, but also by sound, video and animation. The sound can be in the form of speech, music or sound effects and the video can present sequences of scenes as motion picture that may never be available to the reader/viewer otherwise. The animation can provide visual illustrations of phenomena that can only be otherwise imagined, giving deeper insights into the possible structures of phenomena that have never been experienced directly.
While written text, still image, video and animation engage the visual senses, speech, music and sound effects engage the auditory senses thereby providing enhanced capacity for recall and understanding on the part of the information consumer. Furthermore, interactive media engage the information consumer in exchanges, thereby giving them the capacity to contribute information, making them active rather than merely passive information consumers. Due to the multimedia and multimodal engagement of the human senses, information that may be seen as cryptically coded in one medium may be found to be more easily decipherable in another medium. Also, information that may not be easily accessible in one mode may turn out to be better accessed in some other mode. This has amounted to a revolution in the way we consume information and share knowledge.
DOCUMENTATION WITHOUT WRITING Important as the revolution presented by multimedia and multimodal engagement of the human senses is, there is an even more important way in which multimedia should be perceived. At a more fundamental level, multimedia can be viewed basically as a means of information documentation. It is a means of information documentation that does not discriminate against auditory or visual presentation of information and it can be realised in a multiplicity of media. It has a sufficiently Tunde Adegbola wide scope that it is not biased against language or dialect. Writing as an information medium is a system of information coding while some other media in the multimedia composite provide direct and intuitive representation of the objects and concepts they are intended to represent.
Pictures do not necessarily need to be deciphered, and recorded speech is directly accessible to listeners without the need to learn to decode the information as it is in the case of written text.
As a means of information documentation, a writing system needs to be developed specifically for a given language. Even though it has been known for one language to adopt and adapt the writing system of another language, the necessary adaptations bring about distinctions that make such a new writing system unique in some important ways. Hence, the writing system of one language may not be directly usable by another language. To this end, the development of writing systems for any language demand standards and such standards require deliberate and structured efforts. Any culture that is not able to organise to develop such standards may have difficulties in developing a generally accessible and widely useful writing system. Certain components of the multimedia composite are not susceptible to these sorts of impediment.
The deliberate efforts that go into the process of learning to read and write must not be overlooked. When started early in life, the process of acquiring literacy naturally becomes an integral part of the acculturation process. For adult illiterates however, learning to read and write in adulthood generally presents a steep learning curve. Even though adult literacy programmes abound around the world, despite the spirited efforts of national and international organizations such as Unesco, there are still significant literacy gaps in various parts of the world. Hence, even though literacy has become a very important part of human experience, the enhanced capacity to document human experience using multimedia should be properly harnessed as one of the benefits of the information age particularly for illiterates as well as users of unwritten and signed languages.
Of course the use of multimedia is not totally new to mankind. Most of human pre-history is derived from the quest of our predecessors to document their experiences and present them to generations yet unborn. Such quests for documentation for future generations are sometimes expressed consciously but most times they were expressed unconsciously, simply Tunde Adegbola by leaving traces that hint to us of their ways of life and their experiences. This was the only option available to them before the invention of writing. Cave paintings, ancient sculptural pieces and many other pre-historic artefacts can be validly conceived of as elementary efforts to document information in multimedia. Due to the limitations in the technologies behind these efforts however, they were limited mostly to the visual medium. Today however, digital technology has given us the capacity to exploit multimedia and multimodality in ways that were hitherto unimaginable.
Hence, whilst we continue to make efforts to increase literacy levels in relevant communities around the world and develop writing systems for various unwritten languages spoken in the world today we should also integrate into these efforts the possible roles of multimedia and the new capacities made available by modern ict in the documentation of information and the spread of knowledge through multimedia.
FROM ILLITERACY TO E-LITERACY The above arguments are not designed to suggest that multimedia is not being used to productive ends at present. Rather, they are advanced to encourage the use of multimedia in cyberspace in more creative ways that can widen the scope of its use by illiterates and users of unwritten and signed languages. The present preponderance of written information in cyberspace is due not only to the efficiency and portability of written texts but also to the popularity that writing had acquired as an important information medium in the pre-internet era. Because we had become inadvertently positively biased towards writing as a means of communication before the Internet era, cyberspace has had to grow within the ecology of the written word, and cyberspace therefore reflects this bias for the written word by default. Yet there are multimedia alternatives that can be used to complement writing in cyberspace.
We can approach the use of multimedia to make cyberspace more accessible to the illiterate as well as users of unwritten and signed languages from two primary points of views. From the first point of view, we can use multimedia in its basic form, for example to record and play back information in the form of speech or by drawing and display of images. From the second point of view, we can exploit more sophisticated Tunde Adegbola technologies such as human language technology, particularly speech technology to mediate literacy.
There are many ways in which the basic use of multimedia can benefit illiterates as well as users of unwritten and signed languages. With the popularity of low data rate audio recording techniques such as mp3, as well as the steady reduction in the cost of recoding media and their increased reliability, it is now feasible to record many hours of speech on relatively small and cheap digital media with a high level of reliability. Such recordings are valid documents that can be used in many ways as written text is normally used. They can be played back whenever the contents need to be consulted and they can also be indexed and therefore made searchable to facilitate efficient information retrieval. In the same vein, still images, video and animation can be used to tell stories, either as complements to recorded speech or separately on their own.
Apart from the use of multimedia in its basic forms, it is also possible to use human language technology and advanced speech technologies to mediate literacy. Despite the efficiency and portability of writing, speech still remains the preferred means of human communication. The organization of expensive face-to-face international conferences to get authors to read their papers to and interact with audiences, the development of audio books and other speech related technologies all bear testimony to the importance of speech to mankind. Hence, investments in the development of advanced speech technologies are justifiable on the grounds that humans prefer speech. Such investments in speech technology will inevitably trickle down for use in mediating literacy. However, the trickles have to be deliberately collected and harnessed for the benefit of the illiterate as well as users of unwritten and signed languages. For example, Automatic Speech Recognition (asr) can be used to convert ideas expressed by an illiterate person to written text and Text To Speech (tts) synthesis can be used to read written text to an illiterate person.
By so doing, such an illiterate person has been enabled to interact with literature even without the ability to read or write.
Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write and its importance is based on the unprecedented access it gives to information and knowledge.
With present levels of availability of multimedia and developments in human language technology as well as speech technology, coupled with the ever lowering cost of accessing them, there is a need to reassess the Tunde Adegbola relative value we put on written text and thereby create more space for the illiterate and users of unwritten and signed languages in cyberspace.
The recording and use of speech, still images, video and animation as well as the use of human language technology and speech technology in these above described ways are not uncommon in cyberspace. Hitherto however, they have not been seen as valid means of communication for the illiterate due to the high costs associated with the use of such media in the pre-Internet era. With recent developments in digital technology however, such uses are becoming more and more feasible. Even though they still appear to be relatively expensive for use in mediating mass literacy, they are bound to become less expensive as we move further into the information age.
The present rate of penetration of mobile phones in both urban and rural areas of the developing world present a salient pointer to the possibility of the spread of the use of multimedia to reach the illiterate as well as users of unwritten and signed languages. We therefore should approach multimedia from such futuristic perspectives and plan to harness its full benefits for creating an inclusive cyberspace.
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