Africa is the second-largest continent in the world after Asia and is the most multilingual continent in the world. Whereas world linguistic surveys point to growing language rationalization and a decline in the number of living languages, African languages continue to reproduce and generate ever-new dialects and lingua francas.
According to the African Language Program at Harvard, it is estimated that there are between 1000 and 2000 languages spoken on the African continent, with possibly as many as 8000 dialects. They are traditionally divided into major language families, which are the Afro-Asiatic, the Nilo-Saharan the Niger-Congo and the Khoi-san.
These various languages have been negatively affected as a result of colonisation, which almost led to their extinction because of the impact of foreign languages and their ascribed privileges. However, Africans, increasingly willing to stick to their culture and maintain it, made use of many assets including technology to ease the use of African languages and avoid its extirpation.
“Digitizing African languages is a complex but necessary process. Now, academics and information technology companies from around the world are working together to integrate new languages into various forms of software and technology.” observed Andrew Thompson, a freelance writer.
Technology, therefore, is a great tool to enhance the visibility, preservation, and use of African languages, and I have gathered 5 technological solutions that are boosting African languages.
1- Online and offline dictionaries
Dictionaries are useful tools for language documentation and standardization, as they try to cover and document the general vocabulary (general dictionaries) or the specialized vocabulary (technical dictionaries). They have a high symbolic value for a language. Having dictionaries, and especially technical, online, or cell phone dictionaries, is visible proof that a language is standardized and modern and can be used in all domains of life.
However, very few African languages have standardized dictionaries, which can facilitate the use of African languages by making them accessible to everyone. There are some dictionaries in different African languages, such as Swahili, Kalenjin, Jarai, Zulu, Thai, Twi, Ga, Baoulé, Bambara, etc.
2- African Languages Applications
African Language applications are mobile, or web apps created to help facilitate the use of African languages and can be used everywhere in the world. There are various types of such apps: some are used for the teaching of the languages, as games; or to provide news in the local languages.
These apps make the languages accessible to all, especially Africans in the diaspora. They can be downloaded and used offline on any device, and this makes it easier for users to cope with them, learn the language, or learn more about the languages everywhere.
Some of these applications are:
- Lulla, which is an app that can be used offline and teaches Bambara, Baula, Yoruba, Wolof, Tamasheq, Swahili, Peul, Zulu, Fun, Bassa, Igbo, and Xhosa as well as African cultures.
- Another app is Linguarena which teaches Swahili, Bambara, and Wolof.
- Mandla on the other hand, teaches over 15 African languages through bit-sized lessons, practice listening, speaking, reading, etc.
- Zivo, with which you can learn Swahili, Zulu, Shona, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Tswana, Venda, Swati, Sepedi, Tsonga, Ndebele, Hausa, Igbo, and Oromo etc.
These apps facilitate the use of African languages throughout the world.
3- Online resources on African languages
They are passionate individuals such as Chris Emezue, founder of Lanfrica, Christian Elongué, founder of the network of African Languages Translators and Teachers (ALATT), and institutions that are regularly creating, advocating or sharing informative and interesting online resources about African languages. These individuals and institutions are providing information, lessons, news, projects, and research, that are related to African languages.
Some of these African language resource websites are:
- 200 Word Project is a visual and audio tool comprising a database of specialized words with pictures and video clips that allow students to hear native speakers pronounce each word,
- Dialogue Africa which gives free access to fun lessons to learn Twi, Yoruba, Swahili, Ga, Igbo, and more.
- Ayekoo Afrique, created with the primary interest of making the learning of African languages an easy task for people such as Africans in the Diaspora. African Americans, although living outside the African continent, share a connection with Africans.
- African languages.com which contains information about African Languages, and other African Language related resources. Currently, mostly South African languages are covered, as well as Kiswahili and Cilubà.
4- African languages keyboards
These language keyboards enable Africans to communicate freely, quickly, and comfortably in languages they can best express themselves in. The first-ever African language keyboard, called Bhala, was created by a Zimbabwean called Sabelo Mhlambi. It first had the languages of Ndebele, Shona, Swati, Swahili, Xhosa, and Zulu spell-checkers online and is now being developed.
5- African languages chatbots
Chatbots are software applications designed to simulate human conversation in African languages. Chatbot technology uses natural language processing and artificial intelligence to understand what a human needs and adapts its response to help end-users achieve the desired outcome. According to Michaek Keenan, they are like virtual assistants that create a better customer experience during each consumer touchpoint.
There are many chatbots in African languages, such as:
- Proto chatbot for Mozambique, to help Mozambicans program customer care for Portuguese, English, Nyanza, and many more African languages,
- Proto chatbot for Tanzania which helps Tanzanians ease their communication in Swahili, English, Arabic, and other languages, etc.
African languages are increasingly being promoted and used more in our world today thanks to technology. I have presented many ways technology is facilitating the use of languages in Africa, such as chatbots, keyboards, websites, applications, and dictionaries. At Kabod, we believe technology has a great potential in enhancing the visibility, access and use of African languages and must be taken more seriously by Africans for the betterment of Africa and the conservation of African cultures.
Do you know any other resources, apps, projects or institutions that are using technology to promote the use and access of African languages? Kindly share them with us in the comments!
Grace Emmanuella Amah Yoboué is currently working at Kabod Group International as an Executive Assistant and a Translation Officer. She is studying translation in Ghana and is also a member of the Network of African Languages Translators and Teachers (ALATT).