Symbol-ism

You know how when you go to insert symbols into Microsoft Word, you have to hit some crazy combination of something like Ctrl + 2356 to get the British Pound sign. And how it’s a huge pain in the ass? And how when you scroll through the “Insert Symbol” options, there is a long list of foreign characters? Well, for people living in countries with non-Latin symbols (like oh I dunno, Ethiopia?) this is how they type. Accordingly, in means that in places like Tigray Region in Ethiopia, typing the Tigrinya language is a very specialized skillset.

For the project I am working on, I have spent a fair bit of time at computer kiosks. This is a developing country staple—a place where you can pay a small bit to surf the internet for a while, or to print or scan a document. While there, I’ve been amused to discover men in suits at the kiosk, dictating business letters they have written out to a 20-something guy typing away. Unlike for English-speakers, where you can hunt and peck, Tigrinya speakers have no way of looking at the keyboard and figuring out what combination of Ctrl + keys they need to be hitting. Accordingly, the guy at the kiosk becomes a de facto transcriptionist. Even my field manager, a well-educated and very sharp dude, had to occasionally ask the guy how to get some character in particular.

In the States, I think we (or at least I) often think of education and computer fluency as two things that go hand-in-hind. However, in situations where 1) consistent access to computers is less common and 2) keyboards don’t have the appropriate characters, thus not allowing for learning-by-doing, it would seem as though computer fluency becomes a specialized skillset.

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