The Digitalization of African Languages

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Globalization and technology seem to go hand and hand as technology continues to grow and globalization making strides for a more inclusive and interconnected world the role of indigenous languages become even more important. Tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook are making waves in making African languages more accessible on the internet and helping towards reducing the dangers of most of the indigenous languages dying out. Over 25 percent all languages are spoken only in Africa with over 2,000 recognized languages spoken on the continent, and Nigeria alone has over 500 indigenous languages. The most common language spoken on the continent is Arabic (spoken by 170 million people), followed in popularity by English (130 million), Swahili (100), French (115), Berber (50), Hausa (50), Portuguese (20) and Spanish (10), according to an article by Action Institute.

There are four major language families indigenous to Africa: the Afro-Asiatic languages, a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million speakers; the Nilo-Saharan language family, consisting of more than a hundred languages spoken by 30 million people; the Niger–Congo language family, that covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa and is probably the largest language family in the world in terms of different languages; and the Khoisan languages, that number about fifty and are spoken in Southern Africa by approximately 120,000 people.


Critics have criticized the biased representation of African languages in the digital landscape since of the 2000+ indigenous languages, only one African language was recognized as opposed to thirty European languages in 2013. Which is a valid point as Africa has more indigenous languages than any other continent and as globalization takes new heights. Africa is the most multilingual continent in the world a without doubt. With about 11.7 million square meters and 54 fully recognized sovereign states, 9 territories and three de facto states with limited recognition, Africa is the home of over one billion people, which is the same as saying it accounts for about 14.72% of the world’s population. This among other things have attracted other nations, corporations and investors making the continent a prime location in recent years. In addition, by 2034, Africa is expected to have the world’s largest working-age population of 1.1 billion.

It is fair to argue that few factors contributed too many indigenous languages being endangered now and many have already been complexly wiped out. Following the end of colonialism, nearly all African countries adopted official languages that originated outside the continent. In numerous countries, English and French are used for communication in the public sphere such as government, commerce, education and the media. As a result, marginalizing the indigenous languages. Also, as urbanization continues to grow, more African millennials are embracing western culture and speaking with their peers English or French than their first languages or mother tongue, as many refuse to speak it. And if they do, it is usually with their great grandparents, grandparents, certain family members such as uncles, aunts, members of the community and sometimes parents which is usually done through code switching. According to the Action Institute, Africa’s urbanization rate is around 37 percent, comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. It’s expected to be the fastest urbanizing region from 2020 to 2050. Other indigenous languages are dying at a faster pace due to smaller population growth within the group, intermarriage or war. According to UNESCO, any of the world’s 6,000 languages are absent from the public arena, and 50 percent are in danger of disappearing altogether.

Indigenous languages are part of every ethnicities cultural identity and pride. It is a sense of belonging and ownership especially when you travel to another part of the continent and you realize that they too speak the same language as you. This sense of belonging and community is the fabric of African society and it needs to be nurtured, preserved and embraced more than ever before. “Nurturing a rich linguistic diversity depends on these languages becoming more than just vehicles of cultural heritage – they must also become vehicles of opportunity for advancement. South Africa’s much-acclaimed multilingual language policy was born of the need to recognize and support those African languages that were marginalized in the past. However, with English still dominating as the official language in most sectors of society, mother-tongue speakers of South Africa’s other 10 official languages have received the short end of the stick,” according to an article by Vis Naidoo on Microsoft South Africa.

Google Translate added few African languages such as; Somali, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and Zulu services. Although some suggests a few tweaks may be needed, however, this is a good step forward compare to 2013 when only one African language was recognized.


Microsoft Local Language Program – a Global View

Microsoft have been proactive through its broader Local Language Program. By providing software programs in local languages, Microsoft has opened up new worlds for education and the economic participation of millions, and especially in adults and for continuing education among previously disadvantaged communities. According to an article by New York Times titled, Using a New Language in Africa to Save Dying Ones, “Technology can overrun these languages and entrench Anglophone imperialism,” said Tunde Adegbola, a Nigerian computer scientist and linguist who is working to preserve Yoruba, a West African language spoken by millions of people in western Nigeria as well as in Cameroon and Niger. “But if we act, we can use technology to preserve these so-called minority languages.” Experts say that putting local languages on the screen will also lure more Africans to information technology, narrowing the digital divide between the world’s rich and poor. As it is now, Internet cafes are becoming more and more common in even the smallest of African towns, but most of the people at the keyboards are the educated elite. One of Microsoft’s motivations in localizing its software is to try to head off the movement toward open-source operating systems like Linux, which are increasingly popular. South Africa has already adopted Linux, which it considers more cost efficient and more likely to stimulate local software development. Patrick Opiyo, the Microsoft official in charge of the Swahili program, portrays the effort as more about community outreach than business development.

Digitalizing African languages is a good step forward in preserving indigenous languages especially the ones that are being endangered but also to embrace globalization as more and more nations, corporations and investors has recognized Africa as the next wave of growth in the world. Since most African languages still remain in oral form without standardized orthography digitalization becomes even more important especially in today’s ever changing world.

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