Promoting African Languages On the Internet in Zimbabwe

Promoting African Languages On the Internet in Zimbabwe

Using local African languages in computer applications is an important step to promoting traditions, however many feel it may not be feasible or technologically possible.
Photo Credit: Net4Kids
Children use technology as an educational tool.
Somtime in February 1999, I wrote an article examining the possibility of having computer software in African languages.

During that time, I spoke to University of Zimbabwe Computer Centre director Dr Gilford Hapanyengwi and Computer Society of Zimbabwe executive director Geoff Fairall just to get expert advice on the possibility of using local languages in computers.

I also interviewed other information and computer scientists on whether it was possible to use local languages in business applications like automated teller machines to help increase awareness and appreciation of the role that computers can play in aiding humans in their work.

This is what Dr Hapanyengwi said in 1999: "English is the vehicle for communication. We can't do programming in Shona but for application its possible."

He said Zimbabweans should ask themselves whether they were prepared to invest more money in having computer applications and programming in local languages.

University of Zimbabwe Computer Centre executive director, Geoff Fairall, believes it would be extremely difficult to have programming in local languages.


"We can use them in cases where we feel it can help preserve local culture or in situations which would actually make more people start using computers," he told me in an interview.

Fairall said even though nobody had given this much thought, it would be extremely difficult to have programming in local languages in developing countries like Zimbabwe.

"There is very little scope in having programming in local languages as Zimbabwe is basically a user country and not a developer," he said.

But one computer scientist at the time sounded a note of unusual optimism about this issue.

"If we have failed today it doesn't mean future generations will also fail," he said.

And true, news that Shona has become the sixth African language into which users of the Google search engine can now use Zimbabwe's widely spoken language to search for information vindicates the prospects which information and computer scientists once predicted way back in 1999.

This is a timely and exciting development that will help speed the evolution and impact of information communication technologies (ICT) in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole.
Shona, Zimbabwe's widley spoken language, has become the sixth African language to be used by Google.


Other African languages include Zulu, Swahili, Xhosa, Yoruba and Afrikaans.

According to a report that was carried out in a Bulawayo-based daily, the domain has instructions in Shona language and will help researchers, students, foreigners and new learners for the language.

Mr Si Brindley, a Briton married to a Zimbabwean, developed a Shona podcast to assist in the learning of the language.

This podcast is a radio show that can be downloaded on the Internet and then listened to on a digital music player to aid the learning of Shona.

Developments taking place in the IT sector that are facilitating the engagement of ICT in African languages are paving the way for the future development of online language dictionary, lexicographical database to support and enhance the theoretical, descriptive and historical importance of African languages.

Worldwide information and computer scientists warn that the predominant use of English on the worldwide web needs to be checked before it crowds out other languages.

They fear forms of cultural knowledge accumulated over centuries of human progress could be lost forever if nothing is done to promote other languages apart from English and other Western languages.
Computer scientists estimate that about 90 percent of 6,000 languages in use today are not represented on the Internet.


Information and computer scientists estimate that about 90 percent of 6 000 languages in use today are not represented on the Internet.

"These people could be left out in the desert of no information and no knowledge," one expert said.

Oral traditions and cultural heritage of most African countries that could be tapped for research and education purposes may never reach the broader world, experts say.

"A large part of the population are voiceless because they cannot share the information," Adama Samassekou, the president of the African Academy of Languages once remarked.

Don Osborn of Bisharat, an organisation dedicated to localising ICTs to African languages and Arabic, says much of a peoples' cultural and intellectual heritage, especially in rural areas, is contained within and expressed through the local language.

"Limiting people to the use of ICTs in a foreign language tends to worsen the "digital divide", makes ICT adoption long, difficult, and expensive, and impoverishes local cultures," he said.

But, Osborn said, localising software and Internet content presents complex challenges in Africa.
Due to population movements and the imposition of administrative boundaries during the colonial era, most countries have no majority language.


"A major one is scope: there are an estimated 2 000 African languages. As a consequence of population movements and the imposition of arbitrary administrative boundaries during the colonial era, most countries have no majority language -- in some countries, dozens or even hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken," the ICT expert said.

Osborn said in Arabic, a great deal of adapted software and content already exists but very little has been localised to the needs and cultures of rural Africans.

"The isolation of most African localisation experts compounds these problems, they have no means of exchanging information or collaborating with colleagues," he said.

The evolving idea on the importance of mother languages in sustainable development and the enormous potential of new ICTs is critical for language development, research, advocacy and networking in the use of African languages software and web content.

Africa is still marginalised from the benefit of ICTs and the majority of computer software are developed in English language and based on Western culture.

A very small percentage of the African population properly speaks English and most have their own diverse cultures that need to be exposed on the Internet.

More resources are required for the promotion of computer application software in African languages given the fact that this is a mammoth task that requires time and expertise.
The widespread embracing of Western cultures and languages in Zimbabwe and Africa presents another formidable psychological barrier that needs to be overcome.


The widespread embracing of Western cultures and languages in Zimbabwe and Africa presents another formidable psychological barrier that needs to be overcome.

"What we have done so far is to demonstrate that people can operate computers in their own language. This removal of the language barrier in the operation of computers would enable a lot of people to exploit its benefits and not to be marginalised," said Dr Boniface Manyame who was part of a team comprising medical doctors and social scientist that translated some computer applications into three African languages (Shona, Ndebele and Buganda) in 1999.

This was an important milestone in the advancement of African languages that are now under threat and facing extinction in most parts of the continent.

Today, it is encouraging to hear that Microsoft and Internet giants have multi-billion dollar programmes to promote software application in a number of African languages.

However, Africans need to go beyond being merely software users (or markets for Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) by utilising its vast ICT talent and resources to develop programming in local languages.

Almost all software is developed in English and a few other Western languages. As a result, Osborn said, most Africans cannot access software in their mother tongue.

Multilingualism should be promoted and cultural diversity maintained as the driving force for the process of developing content for local and international use.


"Educated urban Africans have the option of using English, French, or Portuguese, the pan-African languages imposed by colonialism. In rural areas, where most Africans live, very few people speak European languages," he said.

This, he said, demands that Africans make ICTs more accessible and relevant to rural African people through localisation, the adaptation to local languages, cultures and preferences, of computer software and Web content.

"This will in turn make technology a much more powerful tool for social and economic development," Osborn said.

African information and computer scientists say there is need to create a Highway of African Multilingual Information (HAMI) fund to finance the production and maintenance of web sites in African languages.

They also point to the need to create a vocational training fund for African data processing specialists to continuously train system administrators whose tasks are to configure, support and maintain the web hosting server sites in African languages.

The African experts say that all the initiatives on African language coding for computerisation be listed in order to direct the communalities and address difficulties and challenges encountered.

The rich cultural diversity of Africa should be showcased and widely disseminated in the cyberspace.


They also call for the creation of national structures and associations for applications development in national languages supported by international organisations to promote an African Dot Force whose essential mission would be to encourage the convergence of the present standards in African languages.

Multilingualism should be promoted and cultural diversity maintained as the driving force for the process of developing content for local and international use.

The rich cultural diversity of Africa should be showcased and widely disseminated in the cyberspace.

Economic, political and technological will is critical for language development in the information society in view of making it possible for Africans to develop their own content focusing on applications and software solutions, using their local languages.

"Africa Bole!, Africa can" just to borrow a popular Malaysian chant.




Contributed by Sifelani Tsiko. Reprinted with permission from allAfrica.com. Copyright © 2006 allAfrica.com. All rights reserved.

To read another Global Envision article about language and globalization, see Carribean Conundrum.



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