How USAf is working towards bringing prominence to African languages in cyberspace

When COVID-19 struck and communication went largely online, Prof Mbulungeni Madiba soon realised how inadequate African languages are in the digital arena.

Professor Madiba (right), who is Dean of Humanities at Stellenbosch University, said: "The presence of African languages on the cyberspace is in reality nonexistent. Where databases do exist, they are not well populated. There is data that is generated, but how that data is curated, stored, made accessible, the technologies... there are a whole lot of gaps we have identified.''

The "we" Professor Madiba referred to is a special group he chairs, called the Community of Practice for the Teaching of African Languages (CoPAL). It is one of Universities South Africa (USAf)'s only two discipline-based communities of practice. The other focuses on the teaching of mathematics, a subject which, alongside African Languages, was identified to be endangered in South Africa's higher education in 2015, hence the formation of these two groups to address the challenges identified with the two subjects.

Professor Mbulungeni Madiba

What is a community of practice, and why one on African languages?

Professor Madiba explained that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest, in this case, an interest and passion in African languages. Founded in 2016, CoPAL aims to promote and strengthen the teaching and learning of African languages, and to provide an opportunity to collaborate, network and share knowledge among public universities.

The CoP's concerns led to a decision to host (under the USAf banner) a virtual Round Table on 29 October on the theme of African Languages in the Age of 4IR, with the aim of seeking solutions to these challenges.

Digital humanities holds some of the answers for African languages

Professor Langa Khumalo, newly-appointed director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) at North-West University, facilitated this Round Table.

He explained how 4IR is based on the merging of many digital and information technologies, and was changing the way language is used.

Digital humanities had sparked collaborations between academics in humanities with engineers and those in techno sciences, and the speakers at the Round Table had been chosen from these fields to show how technology can advance the teaching and learning of African languages.

Connecting the humanities with technologies opens up possibilities

Prof Ahmed Bawa (right), CEO of USAf, said the Round Table's bringing together of the humanities and the technologies was ''critically important to me''. As a physicist, he was constantly aware of how higher education in South Africa and globally had ''almost torn apart the different domains of knowledge''. Bringing these two disciplines into a nexus meant they could contribute to each other. This was especially needed at this time when the world was sliding towards anti-intellectualism and technisim (the belief that technology will be the saviour of the human condition).

He said it was intriguing to see how technology had already begun to take hold in the domain of languages. In China if a tourist asked a young person for directions, they whipped out their cell phones for a simultaneous translation. When in Russia in 2016 for a BRICS meeting, he had typed in English on his phone to call an Uber to take him to the airport. The taxi driver had responded in Russian, and the Uber app had instantly translated it into English. This showed how technology could be used for a conversation. It could be extended to help people overcome their fears of learning new languages, so that the process was quicker and more pleasurable.

Prof Ahmed Bawa

Ideally this intersection of knowledge domains should extend beyond CoPAL, Professor Bawa said. It was not just about seeing technology as something that could be used but more of ''a to-ing and fro-ing between these knowledge domains that would make a really important contribution to higher education globally".

Robots can translate and act as receptionists

One of the most direct ways language intersects with 4IR is through natural language processing. A guest at the Round Table, Professor Daniel Mashao, UJ's Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, did his PhD in this area at Brown University in the US. A branch of AI, natural language processing is about how computers learn to understand speech and text as well as the sentiment behind the words. It can be supervised with a programmer continuously feeding data into the algorithm, or can be unsupervised and take data from a variety of platforms. This can be a disaster, as Microsoft discovered in 2016 with a Twitter chatbot called Tay that had to be removed after 16 hours because it was spewing out racist comments.

Natural language processing is being applied in web translations, such as Google Translate, some social media options, and call center automations that screen and direct queries. "Through natural language processing, robots are becoming receptionists,' Dr Mashao said.

The keynote speech provided hope for African languages

Dr Bhaso Ndzendze

In his keynote address, titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for African languages, Dr Bhaso Ndzendze (left), Research Director at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and a lecturer in UJ's Department of Politics and International Relations, highlighted some innovative developments.

He said 4IR was about technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, blockchain technologies, 5G connectivity, the Internet of Things, and 3D or additive manufacturing. What was new about them was the scale at which they were being applied. He said it was important to note the convergence and advancement to social change, of the opportunities that 4IR offered African languages.

Africa's language diversity can be seen as its new gold – Dr Ndzendze

Quoting from UJ's Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala's recently published book, Closing the Gap - The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, Dr Ndzendze said the diversity of languages in Africa was one of the continent's key advantages, its new gold, or new oil, because they are unique, and required expertise in so many areas that they provided an economic niche.

There is also linguistic diversity. The fortunes of different African languages differ vastly in terms of political relevance. Some don't even have grammar books, and others are on the verge of distinction such as the Khoisan languages in South Africa.

Fascinating facts about African languages in the digital space

Africa is very unrepresented digitally, said Dr Ndzendze, in agreement with Professor Madiba's earlier statement. Citing the latest statistics in this regard he said they show that:

  • Africa has a high mobile phone subscription rate but only 28% have access to the internet;
  • About 3% of apps are developed in Africa; and
  • English is one of 7100 languages used around the world yet is used for 54% of the internet's content.

There are opportunities for development in the African digital space

"I think we have overwhelming opportunities," said Dr Ndzendze.

Africa has the youngest average aged citizens in the world. Recent polls show these young people are very technologically savvy. Many have a very strong pan-African outlook, are very geared into the idea of advancing Africa ''and yet find no contradiction with doing so through technology'', said Dr Ndzendze. They tend to love the fellow Africans, travel and are in favour of integration, which provides immense possibilities for partnerships between countries, regions and with big companies.

Key innovations include an indigenous language Whatsapp and an African sign language app

Africa also boasts a high level of entrepreneurship. Innovative tech projects relating to African languages include:

  • AI-powered multilingual animations to support teaching in local languages, led by Professor Abejide Ade-Ibijola at UJ. It led to the VC Professor Marwala speaking fluent Afrikaans and Prof Daneel Van Lill, Dean of the College for Business and Economics, speaking fluent Zulu – all piloted during lockdown;
  • An app called OB Talker which evolved into OB Translate, piloted by a developer in Nigeria, is like a Whatsapp for African languages with real-time translation. It has a database of over 2000 African languages, and offers real time messaging across different languages, even for voice and video calls; and
  • Reah ( ''hear'' spelt backwards), a South African Android phone app developed by hearing-impaired students who did a year-long course with start-up Mbula Research and Development, bridges the communication barrier between hearing and non-hearing people. They call it a language Uber which puts people in touch with those who can provide sign language translation. The next step is to use more AI so the live translation can happen outside of office hours.

Why these developments are so special for Africa

Dr Ndzendze said the most striking characteristic of these developments is that they provide an opportunity ''to define and to domesticate'' 4IR which some see as being imposed on Africa.

The intersection of African languages and 4IR leads to new policy

South Africa's Presidential Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Commission, of which Professor Marwala is deputy chairman, released its report that was gazetted in early October. It recommendations relating to language include:

  • the release of the spectrum, that is an increased range of wavelengths that are used by all wireless technologies such as TV and radio. This will unleash new access to the internet and break the digital divide that prevents poorer people from accessing it; and
  • using AI to preserve African languages at risk of extinction.

Dr Ndzendze said platforms such as CoPAL can help all the efforts by different individuals, startups and universities to ensure they share best practices relating to 4IR.

Other speakers at the Round Table whose presentations will be addressed in future articles included Dr Vukosi Marivate from the University of Pretoria, Dr Lehlohonolo Mohasi from the National University of Lesotho, and Dr Karen Caltreaux from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

CoPAL Colloquium on Round table on African Languages in the Age of 4IR
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