How Africans are bridging the language digital divide

Map showing African languages and their family groups. Image by SUM1 from Wikimedia Commons. Used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The underrepresentation of Indigenous African languages online has long been a challenge. In recent years, Africans have taken up the task of bridging this digital divide, recognizing the importance of preserving their linguistic heritage and fostering inclusive digital spaces.

With a current population of over 1.4 billion in Africa, World Atlas claims that about 6.5 million are native English speakers, while 700 million are non-native English speakers. This indicates that a significant portion of the African population faces difficulties accessing information on the internet due to language barriers.

Out of the 7,100 languages spoken in the world, 28 percent are spoken on the African continent alone, reflecting its rich cultural heritage and history. However, the digital world predominantly supports languages such as English, Chinese, and majority European languages. About 20 years ago, 80 percent of the world's online content was in English. Currently W3Tech estimates that 54.9 percent of websites with known content languages use English, while African languages like Twi, Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Kinyarwanda, and others are used in less than 0.1 percent of websites. Although there has been some improvement in the representation of African languages online, significant gaps remain.

Why this work is important

The work being done to address this underrepresentation is of paramount importance. It not only preserves African cultural heritage but also ensures that Indigenous people can exercise their digital rights without any hindrance. Indigenous languages are carriers of wisdom, traditions, and unique identities that are deeply rooted in communities across the continent. By bringing these languages online, Africans are safeguarding their rich cultural tapestry for future generations.

Moreover, addressing the digital language divide is crucial for fostering inclusive digital spaces. When individuals can access and communicate in their native languages, they feel a sense of belonging and empowerment in the digital realm. It allows them to participate fully, contribute their knowledge, and engage in meaningful ways.

Through innovative initiatives and collaborations, Africans are making significant strides in addressing the underrepresentation of indigenous languages online, empowering their communities and promoting linguistic diversity.

Linguistic digitization projects

African individuals, organizations, and governments have spearheaded numerous linguistic digitization projects to increase the online presence of Indigenous languages. These projects involve digitizing language resources such as dictionaries, grammars, folktales, and songs, making them accessible through online platforms. Organizations like the African Languages Technology Initiative (ALT-I) and the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) have played instrumental roles in supporting these initiatives. Additionally, several Wikimedia affiliates focusing on Indigenous languages have emerged on the continent. Wikimedia affiliates are organizations affiliated to the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the foundation that hosts Wikipedia and its sister projects. These Wikimedia affiliates and language groups include the Wikimedians of Twi Language Group, The Dagbani Wikimedians Group, The Gungbe Wikimedians User Group, the Hausa Wikimedians Group, Tyap Wikimedians Group, the Swahili Wikimedians Group, The Fante Wikimedians Group and the Frafra Wikimedians Group. These groups establish Wikipedia versions in their languages and contribute content in their respective Indigenous languages. In May 2023, the Ghanaian Wikimedia Language Communities joined hands to host a language mini conference in Ghana as seen in this tweet by the Dagbani Wikimedians group:

The Ghanaian Wikimedia Languages Communities join hands to host a language mini Conference. Read more at : @Wikipedia @Moore_Wikimedia@Kusaalwiki@DagaareWiki@wikipedia_twi@Ghpidginwiki@GureneWikimedia@artandfeminism@risingvoices

— Dagbani Wikimedians User Group (@dagbaniwiki) May 31, 2023

Technological innovation

Advancements in technology have opened up new avenues to address the underrepresentation of Indigenous languages online. Africans are leveraging digital tools, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to develop language processing algorithms and automatic translation systems. These innovations assist in bridging language barriers, making it easier for individuals to access and contribute to online content in their native languages. For instance, Lelapa AI launched an app called Vulavula, aiming to enrich under-represented African languages. Lelapa AI launches an app to enrich under-represented African languages.

As explained by the chief executive officer Pelonomi Moiloa and chief operating officer Jade Abbott in an interview on SABC news, the company plans to utilize Vulavula in sectors such as banking, education, and healthcare, enabling users to communicate with customer service representatives in their own language.

Crowdsourcing and community participation

Africans are harnessing the power of crowdsourcing and community participation to accelerate the representation of Indigenous languages online. Online platforms, including the Wikimedia projects, digital campaigns, and social media campaigns like Rising Voices’ DigiAfricanLang, encourage users to contribute translations, transcriptions, and recordings in their native languages.

For instance, a software engineer at Google solicits for volunteer contributors to help with the translation of Ibgo words as shown in the tweet below:

Education and awareness

Promoting education and awareness about Indigenous languages is essential to address their underrepresentation online. African institutions, educational programs, and language activists are working diligently to incorporate Indigenous languages into curricula, develop language learning apps, and organize language revitalization workshops. Some African language learning apps include, Utalk, Ayekoo AfriqueDialogue Africa, Izesan, and Nkenne. These initiatives empower individuals to actively engage with their native languages and reinforce their importance in the digital realm.

Government support and policy

Several African governments have recognized the significance of Indigenous languages and their representation online. Governments are formulating policies and allocating resources to support language preservation and digital inclusion. By partnering with local communities, academia, and technology companies, governments are encouraging the development of localized digital content and online platforms in Indigenous languages. For instance in 2020, Bonginkosi Emmanuel Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation in South Africa, promulgated the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The purpose of this policy is to provide a framework for the development and strengthening of Indigenous languages as languages of scholarship, teaching and learning, and communication at South African public higher education institutions, especially universities.

The underrepresentation of Indigenous languages online in Africa is gradually being addressed through the collective efforts of individuals, organizations, and governments. Africans are embracing technological innovations, linguistic digitization projects, and community participation to empower their communities and preserve their linguistic heritage. The increased representation of Indigenous languages online fosters cultural diversity, facilitates knowledge sharing, and strengthens the digital presence of African communities on a global scale. By continuing to prioritize these initiatives, Africa is laying the foundation for a more inclusive digital future, where linguistic diversity is celebrated and Indigenous voices are heard.

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