Multiculturalism and Multilingualism in the Digital World: Toward the Democratic Access to Information in the Periphery

  • Claudia WanderleyEmail author
Living reference work entry


We propose to comprehend linguistic plurality and digital inclusion of local languages in a digital world in a panoramic approach on the subject that is important to many different fields through many different fields. We examine this subject using some available data about the Brazilian situation. Multilingualism in a digital world is part of UNESCO’s goals to achieve a democratic access to information at a planetary level. It is also related to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2. To achieve this utopia in a society that shares all information for a common good and promotes the well-being of all peoples, it is paramount to have access to education and services in everyone’s mother tongue. It is here where the digital world plays the role of a territory to be occupied by all living languages on the planet, an objective that permits access to all. On an academic level, this theme aims to promote the integration of local cultures in the construction of knowledge in both academic and digital environments for mutual well-being. It also seeks to enhance the exchange of information and the creation of collaborative knowledge through a digital culture among partner universities and partner communities and to promote the paradigm of a knowledge society in higher education institutions. The development of this theme in a research program in this paper permits to engage in cross-country cultural and linguistic diversity in academic research in the traditional humanities as well as in the emerging digital humanities. For the last 10 years, this has been one of our major objectives, that is, to understand and promote multilingualism in digital worlds, especially as they emerge in Brazil.


Multilingualism Periphery Original peoples Epistemology Cultures Self-organization 

Horizon: Presentation

Local languages, as the term is used in this chapter, is another name for the languages that do not have strong public policies of the nation-states, recognizing their importance or recognizing the needs of the communities of speakers to have their own heritage and language taught in school or to have a public visibility of their culture. These are languages which need to be represented, along with their cultures and with their way of thinking in public schools and public universities. Their speakers should be treated with respect having all information about citizenship rights and human rights in their mother tongue. In a way, it concerns original people’s languages, but it could be understood as well as a theme related to linguistic policies and politics concerning the dominant languages and human values in a specific territory.

Our worldview is expressed by language, culture, and the epistemic possibilities we are engaged. They are all interrelated in a complex linguistic, cultural, and thought system that enable us to develop our identity and interpret our life and environment. In this sense, linguistics studies are related to only one national language, enhancing monolingualism in a multilingual environment, as it exists in Brazil, for example. It is less about promoting the patterns and the normalization of the national language for school children and more about the erasure of languages that would be part of our reality. The lack of native scholars working in their mother tongue in schooling results in a huge quantity of local languages which do not actively participate in the knowledge production of their country.

Unfortunately, Brazilians have agreed with members of the US Congress and a number of Latin American specialists that the role of writing from an oral language would be a role of Jesuits, priests, etc. We have a Christian organization in the United States that began in 1930 to translate the Bible into original people’s languages, known as Summer Institute of Linguistics (nowadays SIL International), for all of Latin America. For reasons that the author nowadays cannot yet completely understand, this opportunity has opened their doors for a mass evangelization of all indigenous peoples living in Latin America, with an emphasis on the technology of writing.

Such a mélange between the role of a Bible translator and a linguist in all Latin American territory according to Barros (2004) “meant to start evangelization by translation” or to put it clearly “the initiative of the translation is of a non-native speaker, the missionary, who drives the process of translation by the assistance of the informants of the language.” In the same period in Mexico, he stated that “One changed the concept of indigenous race by the concept of indigenous language. The fundamental difference which exists between the indigenous race and the rest of the Mexican population is without doubt the language” (Antropol 2004).

In the 1940s there was interest in creating indigenous schools where the written language can be taught to indigenous peoples. This policy was approved in Mexico and it became a model for Latin America. Barros says “the objective of an indigenous school was to be an instrument of incorporation of the indigenous to Nation State.” It is only in 2006 (66 years later) that the languages in danger of being extinct became an issue at the international level.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the entanglement from linguistic identity to cultural identity to human rights, concerning indigenous peoples, is at stake. The debate these days has focused on endangered languages. To what point we can affirm that focusing on endangered languages is a way to soften the indigenous peoples’ tragic situation in our contemporary global economy which is focused on productivity and capital growth? Or are the endangered languages, in fact, the core of the problem?

Maybe strengthening these languages could allow us to have access to the existence of meanings which address differently the understandings of human nature, social bonds, ecosystems, and life purposes, among others. And possibly switching from one nation-state language to a local language could be a way to stop ecocide, to have a better interaction as human beings, and to become more integrated with our role as co-creators of our local reality. Of course, languages, cultures, or knowledge which engages in individuality and utilitarianism would do the opposite job. This is contrary to the enhancement of local languages, local peoples, local culture, and local epistemologies. To enable local languages to flourish seems to suspend a very important agreement established in the period of colonization which was to cancel [or to erase] the importance and quality of original peoples’ understanding of their world and their practices. In this sense, our hypothesis is that the more authoritarian and colonized a country is, the less indigenous peoples can count with this nation-state supporting retaining and promoting their mother tongue.

Democratic Access to Information

The ways to comprehend linguistic plurality and digital inclusion of local languages in a digital world in a panoramic approach are a subject of interest to many fields of knowledge. Multilingualism in a digital world is part of UNESCO’s goals to achieve a democratic access to information at a planetary level. Multilingualism as a transversal subject is quite new in Brazil’s academic environment, which is a multilingual country recognizing only Portuguese and Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) as national languages. In fact, in Portuguese-speaking countries, it is still basically a nonexistent concept, which has to be created in partnership with the most needed communities that have no idea of the effect of such abstract object in their daily lives. A project to map multilingualism research initiatives in post-colonial speaking countries and to compare those results with European multilingualism focuses on interesting questions. How to promote multilingualism in public universities through a language and a linguistic policy that has been historically the monopoly of the local elite which promotes monolingualism?

A basic question is how to reach these local communities within underdeveloped countries while great part of the efforts in these national academies, and the source for national research funds for research, and the focus is for scholars to publish abroad with researcher teams from the United States or Europe? The objective of becoming part of what is called in Brazil the “first world of academic production” is in strange relationship for those working on local research topics and especially for those in the humanities. In order to understand working class, for instance, in Brazilian context, it is important to make an effort to zoom out or extend beyond the illegal third sector that is huge in countries in development – or subaltern countries – such as Brazil. That is, when thinking about education and schools, it is necessary to re-project in public institutions in underdeveloped countries, for example, the value of publishing in Europe or United States.

To keep our research and disciplines involved in international debates, we must reaffirm our bonds to what authors in the Northern Hemisphere think about us. How to inherit gratefully the academic northern debate and at the same time develop or formally recognize our own narratives, cosmologies, and epistemologies from this point? Is it possible on multilingualism issues, mostly in post-colonial countries? We believe so but in a particular way that would involve supporting an open debate in the Southern Hemisphere, sharing open texts, enhancing free access to digital academic content, and promoting a broad circulation of local knowledge.

The digital world is not the home of a discipline neither is multilingualism. But to bring the debate to academies in post-colonial context, researchers “naturally” are expected to become part of these knowledge fields as they are interpreted by local academic researchers and presented to local academics.

At this moment calling for a reversal does not say much about the immediate interest of a researcher in a post-colonial country or about the actual needs of a consequent local research. However, it does say much about the kinds of partnerships and learning that researchers are interested and where everyone can feel being related to it.

The place of this debate in UNESCO is with the Communication and Information Sector as it permits us to bring essential issues that are on the forefront of this discussion; they are freedom of expression, democratic access to information, social inclusion, digital inclusion, availability of editorial houses for minority languages, translation of important literature into local languages, translation of important local discourses to broader access, and, finally, how to achieve direct access, for instance, to the academic production or partner countries interested in the similar research themes.

The first and most important issue in this case is to figure out how is it possible to develop communication and information among the interested parties, that is, those beyond the American and European broadband highway imaginary, into countries that do not always have broadband, or computers, or electric energy. But we always have knowledge production. It is obvious that post-colonial countries and its cultures and public research institutions are at work; there are no such peoples that do not produce and circulate with great pride and effectiveness of their knowledge.

To comprehend this subject, it is possible to find comfort intellectually in Marxist or Althusserian logocentrism as a pattern of domination. And this comfort can be a blindfold to other possibilities of communication and knowledge circulation. This is not a reference to nonverbal corpora only; rather, it is mainly a trace to be considered because academics are so implicated in texts and looking for scientific publications that there might be other possibilities of knowledge circulation that are not in immediate logocentric and digital-networking sight. Also, this curiosity should not be interpreted as a denial of current initiatives and actual immense efforts to textualize and digitize knowledge. On the contrary, it is just an attempt to embrace new options, to recognize our traditional and local ways of communication and information spread, and to be able to maintain a conversation somehow within and beyond, or besides, textology.

Digital World in a Monolingual Country with More than 274 Languages

The economics of a digital text is an interesting subject, because it is a determinant to working conditions of intellectuals of underdeveloped countries in digital world. That is because, mainly, it is very expensive to put the script of a language in Unicode and then to translate platforms and software to this new language, to provide manuals and technical assistance, and finally to find an interesting number of “consumers” (or speakers) that could respond to the need of this digital linguistic infrastructure. Nowadays there are around 6,000 languages in the world, the Africa continent solely bearing 2,000. On the Internet, there are 20 languages functioning in their whole technological capacity and around 60 languages being able to resist well on new TICs software. The others which are available are usually borrowing the infrastructure of another linguistic system (Table 1).
Table 1

Top languages used on the Internet, December 31, 2017.

Top ten languages in the Internet

World population for this language (2018 estimate)

Internet users by language

Internet penetration (% of population)

Internet users growth (2000–2018) (%)

Internet users % of the world (participation)





























































Top 10 languages






The rest of the languages






World total






In the case of Brazil, the only languages that are used to browse the Internet are Portuguese, English, and French. This information below is published from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in the census of 2010:

In 2010, 293,900 indigenous people spoke 274 languages

In Brazil, 274 spoken indigenous languages were counted, excluding those originating in other countries, generic names of trunks and language families, among others, with Tikuna being the most spoken (34,100 people). On the land, 214 languages were identified and 249 were counted in both urban and rural areas located.

Of the 786.7 thousand indigenous people aged 5 years and over, 293.9 thousand (37.4%) spoke an indigenous language, 57.3% were on indigenous land and 12.7% off indigenous land. Portuguese was spoken by 605.2 thousand (76.9%) and was spoken practically by all the Indians outside their lands (96.5%). (IBGE 2010)

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2016) and Ethnologue (Simons and Fennig 2018), 96% of the languages on the world are spoken by 4% of the world population. It seems that the economy and possible public policies will not fit for the majority of language speakers for Internet use, when we consider TICs industry and its real possibilities.

This being said, there are basically two options: to develop bilingualism to access digital platforms and, therefore, digital data or to investigate the possibility of other signs to start a digital conversation. Both are very good options. Basically, it means, when choosing bilingualism, the focus is to look for free software and open resources and the collaborative spirit and when we choose “other signs,” this possibility depends basically on a collaborative and proactive network. It means on a short term to use well-known digital objects in different communication functions to include local languages. Audiovisual documentaries in mother tongues uploaded in easy platforms seem to do a very good solution for a quick start in digital world using one’s mother tongue, which is not available yet in digital world (e.g., Unicode, operational systems, and software).

The perspective for the inclusion of 96% of the languages of the world in the Internet is not very optimistic and especially difficult in Unicode consortium for Latin Americans who usually cannot afford the whole process to include their mother tongues in the system. This presents a difficulty in having access to information in one’s mother tongue online in the case of being part of an original people’s tradition. That’s why multilingualism in a digital world is also concerned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2.

To achieve this utopia of a society that shares all information for a common good, promoting the well- being of all peoples, it is paramount to have access to education and services in everyone’s mother tongue. It is here that the digital world plays the role of a territory to be occupied by all living languages in the planet, a generous tool to permit access to information.

The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights in Article 2 states:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948)

When there is no distinction of language concerning rights and freedoms, all the rights to knowledge, information on citizenship, possibilities to be publicly heard, freedom of speech, education in mother tongue, etc. are concerned. Although the majority of countries participating in United Nations are signatories of these principles, not always are linguistic issues part of the executive part in national goals. Or as it is expressed in the “Action plan for organizing the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages”:

Language is a core component of human rights and fundamental freedoms and is essential to realizing sustainable development, good governance, peace and reconciliation. A person’s freedom to use his or her chosen language is a prerequisite to freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, access to education and information, employment and other values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (United Nations – Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2018)

To work at the academic level with this theme means to promote the integration of local cultures in the construction of knowledge in the academy and in digital environments. In this sense it is important to consider in the elaboration of the studies concerning multilingualism and multiculturalism in digital world, topics to start the understanding of the role of the language in knowledge production in nation-state actual policy.

Sharing a Proposal to Work with Multilingualism in a Digital World in Post-colonial Situations

I reproduce here one proposal developed, approved, and currently working at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP); it proposes the following sub-themes: Multilingualism and Multiculturalism: Theoretical Foundations and State Policies; Languages and Cultures: Online and Offline Presentation; Organic Philosophy: Local Languages and Cultures, Logics, and Local Epistemologies; Local Cultures and Academic Production; Multilingualism and Multiculturalism in Digital World: Research Modes; Theme Development in Transdisciplinary and Multicultural Groups; Horizons of Interdisciplinary Work in Multilingual Environment; The University in the Culture of Your City: Notes for Extension Projects; Creation of Local Language Content in the Digital World; Successful Experiences of Linguistic and Cultural Registration; Networks, New Technologies, and Representation of Cultures and Languages Called Minors; and Digital Collections: Projects and Best Proposals and Online and Offline Interlocution and Intercultural Dialogue.

Such a proposal presented in topics to be developed shows the amplitude of the possibilities to work with multilingualism in digital world. The best philosophical background that we could find at present now is theory of complex systems, self-organization processes, and post-colonial criticism.

On multilingual issues, European multilingual reality and European linguistic public policies play a strong role as a model for the current discussion.

In post-colonial situations, the status of local languages is extremely different. This difference ranges from the value of language within each culture and its role to its social visibility or its possible media inclusion and digital portability. Usually, local researchers in post-colonial situation assume European and US multilingual standards as academic references. But this is only one part of the process; the other that I assume would be necessary is to discuss the international division of intellectual labor and the international circulation of digital assets or, at least, to critically avoid the situation of a reference, of an experience abroad, to become a pattern or a goal without considering local history, material context, and local cultures.

The axes of this proposal are the following:
  1. (a)

    Post-colonial criticism is an important perspective for this proposal, considering that the reality of multilingualism is due to colonial enterprise, and its particular effects on local cultures – in the majority of the countries – relate to languages in danger of disappearing and languages of small circulation. Thus, there is a common starting point; however, in Portuguese-speaking countries, post-colonialism has never been a strong academic issue. In this sense there is a strong interest of this proposal in promoting post-colonial archives and debates among higher education institutions and, therefore, enhances south-south theoretical publications in common thematic grounds.

  2. (b)

    Language as a necessarily nonestablished object. Language plays a major role in this debate, and to encapsulate it within a specific knowledge area would be to limit the importance and appearance of history, memory, unconscious, politics, policies, geography, economics, etc. in this research. The epistemological basis that assures the presence of language as an abstract and “complete” object usually inflicts the metaphor of variation in subject matter content and/or the assimilation to administrate differences, always being related to an established and historically dominant concept of language and culture. Multiculturalism and multilingualism environments here are not dominant patterns in the dominant academic discourse of the “Portuguese-speaking” region; in fact, they are most frequently what is left aside the dominant discourse.

    Also, the functions of language must be enabled to vary when the focus is to perceive and comprehend communicational aspects. When possible, it would be necessary to develop a debate on different approaches of the role of language in societies.

  3. (c)

    Technology as the asset of “world” communication relates to poetry, familiar language, mother tongue values, local education quality, local underdeveloped economy, local production of human resources, etc. In this paradoxical proposal, technology is also the possibility of the impossible. Rather it is the possibility of dreaming of an equalization on information availability and accessibility among any existing cultures. Good and continuous education is important for all. In some countries, some higher education institutions that are our partners in this project just do not have the minimum necessary energies to start dreaming together. It is our responsibility to acknowledge this fact and try to think together and interact in different ways.


To enable peoples with endangered languages to live and to speak in digital world, two curious steps are necessary. The first one is to zoom out from the imaginary speed of technological development, and the other is to take a little reflexive distance from European citizenship patterns and to work in comparative perspectives in both areas. It means also to enhance the exchange of information and the creation of collaborative knowledge through digital culture among partner universities and partner communities and the promotion of the paradigm of knowledge society in higher education institutions.

Humanities and Research for Mutual Well-Being

The development of the theme of multilingualism in digital world permits one to meet cross-country cultural and linguistic diversity in academic research in traditional humanities as well as in digital humanities. During the past 10 years, one of our most important objectives is to understand and promote multilingualism and multiculturalism in a digital world from our local perspective. The possibilities to work with multilingualism and multiculturalism in academic research are related to the perspective that local languages strengthen local cultures which have the background of local epistemologies. The possibility to consider the worthy of one’s own reality is strictly related to the suspension of the silent contract and respect and to develop the knowledge which is already established in mainstream academy.

The possibility to be open to enhance local languages, local cultures, and local epistemologies is a step toward the reconciliation of knowledge production with local reality. If it is possible to start to consider what could be a Mutual Wellbeing Science among languages, cultures, and epistemological approaches, I believe that we have a chance to stop epistemic erasure and cultural erasure and of course stop languages from disappearing.

The Mutual Wellbeing Science is a common goal and an ethic perspective structured in self-organization processes that we have developed with the team of the Unitwin UNESCO Complex Systems Digital Campus, especially at the E-Lab Multilingualism and Multiculturalism in a Digital World.

We are developing a partnership between Associação Metareila of the Paiter Suruí people in indigenous land Sete de Setembro and Unicamp University since 2015 to create their own indigenous university, concerning the Paiter Suruí ancestral knowledge as their own higher education course (see This experience has shown us that the best way to structure a dialogue among different cultures is considering multilingual research work as a common practice independent of the background, respecting the rules and interests of both cultures, as well as systematizing the points of encounter and the differences available at every step. Such experience – well succeeded until this moment – inspired Prof. Paul Bourgine and Prof. Jorge Louça at the CS-DC Meeting on Mutual Wellbeing Science to propose a “discussion to focus on different aspects of designing ecosystems for mutual benefit of communities, both at the individual and collective levels” (see

Although the theory of complex systems and the self-organization processes is very developed in Exact and Earth Sciences, Health, Biological, Agrarian sciences, it could be a benefit in the Human Sciences to develop a better understanding of the possibilities that consider several different approaches of the same situation biased by different languages and cultures that could contribute for the development or this field, especially in the multilingual perspective. More than that, in the beginning and in the end of every project, it is important to evaluate the pertinence of the research practice considering the mutual well-being as a tool to promote mutual understanding; the evaluation of the multilingual and multicultural projects based on mutual well-being of all subjects involved could be a beautiful reference for all researchers interested in the theme.



This chapter is part of the results of activities of the second part of the research project “Post-colonial Criticism in Portuguese: Multilingualism” which has the support of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and also part of the research developed at the Cultural Lab, UNITWIN UNESCO Complex System Digital Campus.


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  2. Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C. D. (Eds.). (2018). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (21st ed.). Dallas: SIL International. Online version:
  3. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (2016). Indigenous languages.
  4. United Nations – Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (2018).
  5. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948).

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Logic, Epistemology and the History of ScienceUniversity of Campinas (CLE-UNICAMP)CampinasBrazil

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