Learning to code in your mother tongue around the globe: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta

Code.org will meet its ambitious goal of making its computer science curriculum available in 30 languages spoken in more than 150 countries.

“I perceive that you are fond of traveling into various countries,” said a pious man to a young Moroccan in the streets of Alexandria sometime in the 14th century. This prophecy moved the young man, Ibn Battuta, to embark on a journey that took him to the equivalent of 44 countries in 30 years.

The spirit of Ibn Battuta — who went on to become one of the greatest travelers in history and rival Marco Polo — continues to live, helping schoolchildren across the Arab world to learn computer science.

A child takes his first steps in computer science at home in Amman, Jordan, using the Code.org tutorials translated into Arabic by Edraak. (Photo: Edraak)

The Battuta tutorial would not exist had it not been for the efforts of Edraak, an online learning platform created by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan, and the World Bank’s funding to translate and localize the curriculum offered by Code.org.

This is part of a broader strategy launched two years ago to bring computer science to students around the world in their native language. “Localization of Computer Science (CS) Fundamentals is a key part of this plan,” said Leonardo Ortiz Villacorta, VP of International Partnerships at Code.org. CS Fundamentals is Code.org’s curriculum geared towards students in grades K-5.

The program involves translation into 30 languages and local adaptation until 2022. This will enable Code.org to make CS Fundamentals available in the mother tongue or second language of close to 90 percent of the global population.

In all of these projects, localization and translation go hand in hand. Localization is the process of adapting content to the culture and social values of any given country or region.

As the localization project manager at Code.org, I’ve seen that localization goes beyond translation in that it modifies the content to fit the cultural needs of our constituents. We localize the content by adding new layers of culturally relevant information and dubbing videos so that students see themselves using computer science or working in technology.

Partners are essential to Code.org’s translation and localization effort. In Argentina, e-commerce juggernaut Mercado Libre has partnered with education nonprofit Eidos Global and Mumuki, an organization that promotes computer science, to complete the translation of Code.org’s CS Fundamentals, the Hour of Code tutorials, and the Hour of Code and Code.org websites into Spanish. This complemented the work already started by Fundación Kodea in Chile and Fundación Televisa’s Cuantrix initiative in Mexico. Localization work is proceeding on schedule thanks to these and many other partnerships like the ones with Programma Il Futuro in Italy, Robin Code in Turkey, and Accenture in Slovakia, among many other projects underway worldwide.

But to talk to so many people, we first need to engage them, and translation is only part of the answer. A character or personality has to introduce the content to our audience. Princess Leia, BB-8, and other Star Wars characters may be universally recognized, but they cannot compete with Condorito, a cartoon character from Chile that is immensely popular throughout Latin America, or, as mentioned, Ibn Battuta among Arabic speakers.

The ‘Marco Polo of the Arab world’

In the Arab world, Ibn Battuta’s fame knows no limits.

“Ibn Battuta is known because of cartoons and TV shows,” says Nisreen Al-Rawashdeh, Program Manager at Edraak in Amman. “Kids in the Arab world know of Ibn Battuta’s travels; they interact with him [in games] as he’s going places and collecting treasures.”

Edraak and Code.org understood from the beginning of their collaboration that direct translation alone wasn’t going to be culturally relevant enough to fit in the region and for students and teachers to relate to the content. To achieve a deeper level of localization, they decided to completely recreate videos, songs, and games.

The technological problems were surprisingly daunting, too, including converting content to the right-to-left script (RTL) employed in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, and Urdu, among other languages. Edraak was able to execute the RTL conversion after putting in three months of intensive work.

“In the end, it worked out much better for the community at large,” Rawashdeh says. “We ended up translating and localizing 83 lessons, 40 characters, including Ibn Battuta, and dubbing 82 videos.”

Race car driver J.R. Hildebrand introduces students to Code.org’s Artist program in a short video in English (left) and Arabic, with dubbing and subtitles by Edraak, a Jordanian online learning platform. (Photo: Edraak)

More than translation

In Alena Kabanová, senior manager at Accenture Slovakia in charge of corporate citizenship initiatives, we found a partner invested in localization. Since 2016, when cooperation with Code.org began for the Hour of Code campaign — sparking “huge interest” from Slovak schools and teachers — the focus has been expanding digital literacy for everyone.

“We decided to incorporate the Code.org courses in the computer science curriculum in Slovakia,” she says from Bratislava. “We launched the project with volunteers but realized that the language was a huge barrier to scale up the usage of the website.”

A break during an offline coding lesson in a Roma children’s community center in Slovakia. (Photo: Accenture)

With the help of almost 50 volunteers, they translated the coding courses. The focus of their efforts was on both students and teachers to help them upgrade their qualifications.

“More than 1,700 teachers have received training since 2017,” Kabanová says. “Out of the 2,000 elementary schools in Slovakia, we have covered a quarter.”

A silent legion

A legion of volunteers has rendered the bulk of the courses into different languages along with a local and familiar set of characters.

In the beginning, Code.org made its content available to everyone to use and translate. “People from all over the world translated the work to the point that by 2019 we had at least one Hour of Code tutorial in at least 45 languages, and that was done with crowdsourced volunteer work,” Ortiz Villacorta says.

Several partners have also contributed to the translation and proofreading work, ranging from those who have contributed from one hour to an industrious outlier in China who has contributed more than 160 hours by himself.

Another example is in Italy, where Francesco Lacchia, of Code.org partner Programma Il Futuro, has spearheaded the effort to translate CS Fundamentals with careful attention to quality control, grammar, and logical structure to facilitate reading. A point of pride for Lacchia’s team is the dubbing of the CS Fundamentals 1–4 introductory course, which involved the participation of elementary school children and teachers.

A new phase

Yet volunteer work can only get us so far. That’s why we set the target of translating Code.org’s content into 30 of the most widely spoken languages through professional services.

“If we only have our content in English, we will only reach a subset of the population, which has the resources — kids that go to private schools, middle class and up,” Ortiz Villacorta says. “So that was the aspiration: Can we localize all of our primary curriculum in the top 30 languages?”

Code.org and our partners from international organizations and corporations have invested more than US$1 million in localization and translation work during the last two years.

Slovak teachers attend a digital skills training session organized by the Bratislava office of Accenture. (Photo: Accenture)

“That’s a substantial investment for a nonprofit, thanks to the generous support of many organizations and companies supporting this work: Accenture, Amazon, Atlassian, Cisco, Mercado Libre, the World Bank, Zynga Inc., and others,” Ortiz Villacorta says. They provided either general funding or funded specific projects, such as the translations into Hindi, German, French, or Arabic.

Code.org is on course to achieve its goal ahead of schedule. “By the end of 2021, we are going to hit the 30-language goal that we set for the end of 2022, so we will be one year ahead of time,” Ortiz Villacorta says. “Those 30 languages are considered official languages on a national level in over 150 countries. This has been a tremendous effort from our translation partners, and it means that millions more students around the world will be able to learn computer science in their native language.”

He explains what has driven the localization effort: “We are enhancing computer science curricula in a way that is equitable and locally relevant,” Ortiz Villacorta says. “We have all this content — more than 400 hours of lessons — in English, so the best way for Code.org to contribute to the world is to make this wealth of content available to the rest of the world ​​in dozens of local languages. This is how we can bring computer science to every student, in every classroom, around the world.”

If you would like to get involved with our localization efforts, you can visit code.org/translate to get started.

-Jorge Castro, Code.org

Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.