BORN a localizer: the long road to mother tongue digitalization

born_localizer When my father, a colonial army veteran, retired as a police officer, I was about 9! I remember the first time he announced that we were leaving the city forever to go back to our roots, the village of Thioubalel (meaning little fisherman in Fulah). But before anybody in the large family had time to cry because we were all born there, we were already gone. The day we left was one of the saddest days in my life!
But, I did not realize that day was also going to become the most important turning point in my own life. When I went to the village, I hardly spoke any Fulah because I always used the lingua-franca of the city, which was not Fulah. I even used to look down upon those who spoke Fulah as unsophisticated. That was precisely why my father was waiting impatiently to get us out of there since we were getting “lost”!
So I became a villager, and soon a fluent and proud speaker of this wonderful language. It was wonderful to see how easy it was to use Fulah to talk about life in the village. Everything seemed so natural when you spoke Fulah and amazingly there was a word for every single thing that you could see around.
Even before I spoke Fulah flawlessly, two to three years later, I realized that knowing French was still very precious in this part of the region where few people went to school. There was no single day when I was not asked to “read” letters for people coming sometimes from neighboring villages! Since they receive letters written in French, there was usually nobody around who could read French. So when the news had spread that my father was “back home”, and that we all went to school and could read letters, one can imagine what was next.
Every day, people would come to our house, with one, two, sometimes more letters to read. My job was simple: I had to read the letter and translate what was said into Fulah. Also, most of the time, they needed to reply straightaway before going back to their villages as they did not want to have to come back again. I would again hold my pen; listen to what they say in Fulah, then write it in French. But almost in every case, there were bits of phrases or event whole sentences I could not translate into French. I was too proud to say I could not do anything. So I wrote phonetically Fulah using French!
Surprisingly, one day, a woman who frequently came to “read” her letters, told me her son was back home and wanted to see me. I never saw him as he left more than ten years back. When I met him, he was surprised I was so young but told me that he wanted to thank me for all the letters I wrote and read for his mother and especially the letters written in Fulah which were usually easier to understand for him. And he said “when I return abroad, please write in Fulah from now on”. I was hoping he would give me a coin or something but I only got a firm handshake, and then returned home!
So I was not yet ten when I realized how language is important and how knowing more languages could be enriching and useful. But most importantly, speaking one’s mother tongue was useful for communicating with one’s people but also for self-esteem. It is precisely that sense of usefulness and self-esteem that remained deeply rooted in me ever since. And naturally, when I went back to school, I had in my mind the resolute intention of creating writing for my mother tongue. I did not know that people did that long before but it is the political institution that decided we would learn French, and French only!
Fulah is a great language to learn and analyze since it has very complex structures that add spice to any linguistic or semantic project work. Unfortunately, people like me were usually isolated and could not born_localiser2coordinate their work with other people in other parts of the world since governments’ policies in different West African countries often give very poor attention to the development of national languages like Fulah.
In the last decade or so, the crucial problem of Fulah scholars was typing and displaying Fulah correctly on computers. Since it uses Unicode characters, there was no easy way of writing Fulah on Windows. Seventeen years ago, I discovered a program called “Type Designer” which could be used to create fonts and to map the characters freely to any type of keyboard. I was so excited!! I bought the program and got to work immediately!!
I had no graphic skills at that time and did not know how to create fonts from scratch. What I did was edit existing fonts from my computer and add Fulah characters that did not exist in the given font. Then, I was able to map characters to specific keys on my keyboard. I modified a dozen fonts and gave them the same names with the prefix “Peul” (Fulah in French) as in “Peul_Arial”, “Peul_TimesNewRoman”, etc.
Hundreds of people downloaded “my” fonts and today, they are used everywhere in the Fulah educated community!
Now, the other problem is displaying Fulah on the internet! People who publish text on the web had to use theses fonts and make them available for download in order to allow everyone to view the pages with the Fulah characters correctly displayed. But that solution was not the best. What I did was try to use a Unicode font and use Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator to create a keyboard mapping that would allow users to type the characters using the language bar of Windows XP. And when I heard about Microsoft’s Arial Unicode MS, I said “that’s THE trick!!”. And that was the trick! With my keyboard layout and this Unicode font, you can type Fulah perfectly on most word processors and web development tools like Dreamweaver or FrontPage as well as other programs. And these are displayed on the web without downloading the font since it is provided with recent versions of Microsoft Office. But there are still problems displaying the characters on forms, BB’s and plain text e-mails. All these issues have now been solved with the adoption of Unicode by almost every software developer. Fulah is definitely ready for the century!
Even though I have always tried to localize everything ever since (remember the letters in French!), it was only with content management software that I really started translating into Fulah, mostly for my own use.
When I heard about the ANLOC(1) “localize software” program, I was pretty excited and eager to start working right away as I have been quite isolated for years. That was going to be my first contact with organized localization networks.
My team and I had been involved in Fulah translation and localization as well as promoting the language on the Internet ( In 2009, I lead the Fulah teams on the “100 African Language Locales” program and successfully completed the work for Fula_sn (Senegal), Fula_mr (Mauritania) and Fula_gn (Guinea). Since, we have tried to set up a dedicated team as there is a real need for localized software in Fulah especially word processors. So we were really excited about this project as some of the work was already in our plans (Abiword, Tux Paint, and Virtaal). We have also set up a dedicated website at which has been running for more than 2 years. Our portal at is the place where we experiment and promote our work as it is the first ever and most visited Fulah website in the world. As part of our projects, we have already developed a Windows virtual keyboard that is now used by thousands and we are looking forward to localizing more software.
As some of you already know, Firefox in Fulah has gone beta last June and it was a historic moment for us as Firefox is the first major software localized in Fulah. It is good for Firefox because there are more Fulah speakers than say, Norwegian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Kurdish, and Dutch!! (Note: Wikipedia’s figure is erroneous as Senegal and Guinea alone count more than 9 million native Fulah speakers!). But also, it is good for Fulah as it may encourage and improve literacy in this language. A browser is the gateway to the world for many Fulah speakers who do not know any other written language. That is way it is very important for Fulah that include our language in the program that led to the final release of Firefox earlier this summer (2).
Fulah is going to be a major Firefox release in the coming years since it is spoken natively in 19/20 countries. Firefox beta testing in the wider community is still ongoing. I am also going to hold two workshops (Dakar, Senegal and Paris, France) to get people to install and get familiar with Firefox in Fulah.
Firefox localization into Fulah has had a great echo in West Africa press. As the news of Firefox release in Fulah spread, we got hundreds of calls, emails and comments from Fulah communities everywhere!
Our website will be the place to come to get news and learn more about Firefox. I have written an article (here) to explain all about Firefox and Mozilla and provided links to download Firefox beta in Fulah.
I also launched one of my (big) projects called “50 tutorials for mastering Mozilla Firefox” right after Firefox went beta. The first tutorial is “How to download and install Firefox for Windows” and is available on our Youtube channel, in Fulah of course ;-). More tutorials will follow to explain more complex features of Firefox. (3)
Last but not least, 65% of our visitors from 32 countries use Firefox for internet browsing, and that was before Firefox in Fulah was known to the community. With Firefox now fully localized, we hope it will be the most popular browser among Fulah speakers even if they don’t use the Fulah version.
While this is a great achievement on the community point of view, I believe it is just the beginning. More hard work is necessary to make Fulah a fully digitized language with spellcheckers, machines translators and why not a complete OS in Fulah. (4)

(1) African Network for Localization

(2) Summer 2012

(3) A (long)  tutorial on localization with Translate Toolkit is available here:

(4) Firefox OS has been localized in Fulah since

Ibrahima SARR

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