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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 072-153(WS)-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Reading
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 153.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Electronic Publishing and Minority Languages: The Contribution to Literacy

Geraint Evans


Jane Del-Pizzo

Department of Library and Information Studies
University of Wales
Aberystwyth, UK


In 1997, the Welsh Books Council and the Welsh Language Board financed research at the Department of Information and Library Studies, University of Wales Aberystwyth. The research investigated the market for Welsh language CD-ROMs in the leisure and educational sectors, although any dividing line between sectors is blurred, especially in the light of "edutainment" and "infotainment" CD-ROMs. The research also evaluated the contribution which electronic publishing could make to the sustenance and development of a minority language to those in the formal education process and also to those in continuing education and lifelong learning. Evidence exists that electronic products can make learning and reading attractive to reluctant readers.


Last year a grant was awarded by the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Books Council to the Department of Information and Library Studies in the University of Wales Aberystwyth to undertake research into Welsh language CD-ROMs. The research was required to investigate the market for Welsh language CD-ROMs in the leisure and educational sectors and to evaluate the contribution which electronic publishing could make to the sustenance and development of a minority language such as Welsh. Though the emphasis of the research was primarily concentrated on the leisure sector, it quickly became apparent that any dividing line between leisure and education is blurred, especially in the context of CD-ROMs described as "infotainment" and "edutainment". The researchers contacted a diversity of multimedia companies and organisations in the public sector such as local education authorities, those responsible for the provision of curriculum related materials in Wales and also those responsible for educational technology in the Welsh Office, the department of central government in Wales. The research also examined the advantages and disadvantages of newer technologies such as hybrid CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs, digital television and the World Wide Web.

The majority of organisations which have become involved in the area of Welsh language CD-ROMs have either an educational connection or develop materials for the educational market. Interest in the Welsh language educational market developed to some extent as a result of the Welsh Office Multimedia and Portables Initiative or WOMPI. The scheme launched in 1995 and completed in 1996, invested £3 million pounds in schools throughout Wales with a view to improving literacy and achievement in science and maths. The first part of the scheme involved the selection of hardware for each school's requirements, with the second part of the scheme financing CD-ROMs to run on that hardware. Following a tendering process, ten CD-ROM titles were chosen out of the 400 which were submitted for tender.

It could be argued that literacy targets could be achieved in ways other than through the utilisation of electronic resources. However, as one writer has argued literacy is more than "letteracy" and should include all forms of communication if children are to be adequately equipped for the world that they inhabit. David Keynton-Tanner argues that pupils should be "good at all the other dimensions of information and communication." (1) The emphasis in this instance is that the new literacy is a tool to enable the effective communication of information, much as reading and writing are a means to an end and not an end within themselves. This view is echoed by Andrew Charlesworth who has written, "Just as numeracy and literacy are tools, without which the other subjects are almost impossible, so IT is a tool which amplifies the learning experience." (2) This is especially important in the case of minority languages, which need to be seen to be competing effectively alongside other dominant world languages in electronic formats. The precarious position of a minority language such as Welsh can be seen in context a world language such as English and the related concerns which surround the provision of electronic publications in British English as opposed to American English. That CD-ROMs and other electronic publications can have an effect on literacy can be seen in the following quotation by Rosina Perberdy: "In addition to the bias of a number of texts many of the CD-ROMs, based on American works, used standard American, rather than, British spelling - a matter of some concern to teachers, parents and many others anxious about children's literacy." (3) The dominance of majority languages can affect the way in which minority languages are viewed, leading them to be considered as archaic forms of communication, especially if these languages are not provided for in modern forms of communication. It has also been argued that children should be involved with the creation of electronic and multimedia products from an early age to facilitate their understanding of the medium and also to create the seeds of a thriving multimedia industry which is suited to the needs of its generation. In 1994, the computer company Acorn began a series of sessions with educationalists aimed at increasing awareness of the implications of new technologies upon the world and how they should be incorporated into mainstream education. All of this clearly poses questions for the Welsh language as it attempts to meet the electronic and technological challenges of the millennium.

These challenges are fully realised by the new Labour Government in Britain. One of the Government's first proposals in 1997 was to announce the provision of funding for a National Grid for Learning, which will link all schools to the Internet and will provide the same resources in electronic format that exist in other formats. It is envisaged that all 32,000 schools in Britain will be connected by 2002, and that the prototype grid will be operational in time for the 1998/1999 academic year. The government's aim is that schools in isolated areas with limited access to resources will therefore be able to link with other schools who are rich in resources to ensure that geographical location does not result in educational disadvantage. Although the government will be providing funding to enable the project to be set up, the intention is that industry will maintain the grid. As Andrew Charlesworth points out, "The Grid is not only about connecting schools to the internet. It also involves installing the infrastructure in classrooms for computer-based learning where the PC replaces the exercise book but not the teacher." The implications for minority languages in this context are clear: if the Grid is to provide "a unified market for British educational software and services", it is vitally important that the needs of minority languages are considered at an early stage of the Grid's introduction. If electronic publishing is ignored in its importance for minority language speakers, it is inevitable that the marketplace will be dominated by majority languages and that the opportunity to promote literacy (as opposed to "letteracy") to children who use and speak minority languages will be lost.

The importance of education to the survival of a minority language such as Welsh cannot be underestimated. According to the 1991 census, 18.7% of the population of Wales were Welsh speakers and the latest statistics suggest that by 1995 there were 545,441 Welsh speakers (4). The pattern of decline and resurgence in the number of speakers can be seen in this overhead transparency (OHT 1). The previous decline in the number of speakers of the language appears to have been partly arrested in recent times, contrary to the expectations of many. A study by Aitchison and Carter (5), based on Samples of Anonymised Records (SARs) from the 1991 census, demonstrates that a crucial shift in the composition of Welsh speaking households is occurring, and that the two age ranges which have more than 10 per cent of the Welsh speaking population in Wales are the 3-10 age range and the 11-15 age range. The authors of the study note that "This distribution is interesting for it can be viewed as capturing a transition period in the recent history of the language, with a new wave of young Welsh speakers slowly asserting itself and acting as a powerful counterweight to the older age groups that were previously so dominant." However, it is important to note that these age ranges are directly influenced by recent changes in education policy, most notably the introduction of Welsh as a core curriculum subject within schools. This trend could therefore be weakened if electronic publishing provision is not considered as a vital part of the educational process within a minority language context. This is especially true, in the light of the claims of Aitchison and Carter that of the Welsh speaking households which contain children, very few have two Welsh speaking parents, which means in turn that the use of the Welsh language within these households is not as dominant as it could otherwise be, and that the transfer and sustenance of the language is in the main school rather than home based.

During the course of the research, the researchers were asked to investigate the proposition that CD-ROMs could threaten the act of reading and pose a threat to book sales. In a Welsh and UK context this was found not to be the case. As one columnist has noted "My own experience as a parent tells me that on-screen learning will encourage, not discourage the use of books. One sparks off the other." (6) A major survey on the British CD-ROM market found that 90% of those questioned agreed with the statement that "Multimedia is a great way of making learning fun." (7) Another writer, Irene Sever, commenting on the impact which libraries have on beginning readers has noted that "If language is acquired by HEARING speech in the preliterate stage, research findings make it clear that literacy, both reading and writing, can also be helped along by LISTENING to the written word." (8) The multimedia features of many CD-ROMs and other electronic publishing formats can clearly aid this process. Products which highlight words on a screen as the words themselves are spoken can reinforce the connection between the symbols and the sounds that are made in pronouncing them in a child's mind.

The element of fun as an essential component of the learning process also should not be underestimated. As Sever has noted, "Many of the fluent readers in first and second grade had learned to read naturally and easily…They worked hard at it, admittedly, but they also had fun and that apparently had encouraged them early to become fluent readers." (9) Again, because of the multimedia nature of the majority of electronic publishing products which are available, it can be argued that fun is an integral part of electronic formats but it is fun which assists in the acquisition and retention of knowledge, especially as it pertains to reading and literacy skills. The following quote taken from Druin and Solomon's book on designing multimedia environments for children emphasises this point: "Children's Edutainment has become immensely popular and commercially successful with parents, teachers and children. In the past, however, teachers and parents did not see the importance of Edutainment...Educational researchers and psychologists have written extensively about the benefits of play as an integral part of children's learning...Professor Marvin Minksy, co-founder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and a founding Professor at the MIT Media Lab has also pointed out, "Enjoyment, which has been banished to the realm of the entertainment sciences, may be the most powerful influence of all on how each person learns."[Minksy 1986]" (10) Many of the CD-ROMs which were viewed as part of the research were equally capable as being classed as educational products as entertainment products. This was true for example of ABC, a CD-ROM which was purchased as part of the WOMPI scheme, which is aimed at pre-school and primary age children. The research also considered the needs of life-long learning and most especially the needs of adults wishing to learn Welsh. Although the Curriculum Assessment Authority for Wales and the Welsh Joint Education Committee have commissioned and produced CD-ROMs for the educational market, it is important to remember that this does not necessarily mean that the needs of those in adult and higher education are being met. The CD-ROM Dyna Hwyl is an example of a CD-ROM which is aimed at adult learners and which could be described either as an educational or an entertainment product. It could be argued that these products are particularly appropriate for the market for electronic products which exists in Wales. It could be further argued that market revenue is maximised by appealing to purchasers in both the home and institutional sectors of the market.

At the time of writing this paper, digital television had yet to take off on a widespread basis in Britain. Despite this the shape of the infrastructure has been finalised - television services will be provided within the pattern of multiplexes with the existing Welsh language television channel, S4C, being carried on half of a multiple with the other half going to the UK fourth channel. As the structure of broadcasting changes, a new set of opportunities present themselves and the Waes Digital College, an interactive information service developed jointly by BBC Wales and S4C is one of these. The Wales Digital College will allow users to access information in a variety of languages, including Welsh, Gaelic and Greek, using a special handset to input information. As programmes are being broadcast, viewers will have the option to select from a range of services which will appear on screen, such as a translation of the script, related language exercises etc. A range of media will be employed, including CD-ROMs and the Web, to deliver a diversity of information directly to the home. As in the remainder of the UK, digital television in Wales has the potential to radically change and expand the audience for electronic information and also to facilitate literacy.

None of those who were interviewed in the course of the research saw electronic publishing as a threat to conventional publishing methods in Welsh, nor was this true of the majority of English language interviewees, because despite concerns by some educators, sales of books have continued to rise. The variety of electronic publishing formats at present, all offer possibilities for minority languages such as Welsh, and because of the different strengths and weaknesses of each format, it is not apparent that these different formats will be competing for exactly the same markets. It can rather be claimed that they are complimentary in the way that they allow information/entertainment to be accessed and used. Consumers appear to be more concerned about the standard of the products that they are buying than their price, and as other electronic publishing formats become more popular, it may be seen that this continues to be a factor affecting the success of any electronically published material. The presence of more products which have backing from respected institutions with an established reputation for the production of quality products, such as those commissioned by the Curriculum Assessment Authority for Wales and S4C, are needed to give consumers more confidence in their purchasing decisions. This would also encourage the emergence of more multimedia producers, to further sustain an embryonic and emerging multimedia industry within Wales. This is a clear future direction, and the decision must be taken by those currently engaged in Welsh language publishing and media whether or not Wales and its language are going to be part of that future. One way of ensuring that this does happen is through the increased provision of Welsh language/interest CD-ROMs, with sales of these being boosted by the existence of a strong, centralised distribution and marketing mechanism, which would allow these products to receive the same exposure in larger retail outlets as is currently enjoyed by English language CD-ROMs. It is important that the Welsh language be seen as a viable means of expression and communication in all formats, whether these be CD-ROM or books, in order that the language thrives as a valid means of contemporary communication, without being tied to a particular period of time or format. Each generation utilises the means of expression available, and as such, the existence of Welsh language electronic publications are essential to a younger and thriving generation of Welsh speakers.


  1. D. Keynton-Tanner. "The New Literacy" Educational Computing and Technology October 1994, p44.
  2. Andrew Charlesworth "Back to School" Personal Computing World, March 1998, p139.
  3. Rosina Perberdy. CD-ROMs in schools and the public library: their impact and implications for service delivery. Dissertation submitted to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in candidact for the degree of Magister in Scientifica Bibliothecaria (MSc(Econ)). Department of Information & Library Studies, University of Wales Aberystwyth; 1997. p23.
  4. Welsh Office. Digest of Welsh Statistics, No. 42 1996. (Cardiff: Welsh Office, 1996) 71.
  5. J Aitchison and H Carter. "Household Structures and the Welsh Language" Planet, 113, pp25-32.
  6. Alan Borrel "Spellbound for once" Guardian 3 October 1996, p12.
  7. Book Marketing Limited. Multimedia and the Consumer July 1995.
  8. Irene Sever. Beginning Readers, Mass Media, and Libraries. The Scarecrow Press Inc.: London, 1994, p29.
  9. Ibid
  10. Allison Druin and Cynthia Solomon. Designing multimedia environments for children. New York; John Wiley & Sons, 1996. p66.