Digify Languages: African Languages in the Digital Age

As the world is transforming into a global digital village, digital activists across Africa have advocated for inclusive approaches to rapid digital transformation. Language is one of the many factors contributing to this divide on the continent, as many indigenous, minority, and low-resourced languages are excluded from the benefits and opportunities of the digital economy.

By Aphiwe Mame, podcast host and producer of Digify Africa Unplugged Conversations. 

In 2019, a digital campaign was launched under the @DigiAfricanLang Twitter account.The Twitter campaign’s main goal was to honour Africans for their dedication to using all forms of digital and online media to promote their languages and cultures online and draw in new speakers. This campaign is still doing its part to reflect the various languages that are spoken on the continent.

Similar to the work done by digital activists on the continent, Digify Africa recently launched Digify Bytes, a project that uses an inclusive approach to training. Language is one of the vital things that make the program inclusive. Trainers use local languages to deliver some aspects of the program. 

Language is crucial to establishing human connections both online and offline since it serves as the foundation for user identification. Differences in the information that is available online for various languages have an impact on who and what is represented, as well as by whom. Inequality in information and representation in different languages online has the potential also to affect how we understand places and experiences. 

Bongiwe Dlutu, an Isi-Xhosa scholar, in her thesis, The Impact of Social Network Sites on written isiXhosa: A Case Study of a Rural and an Urban High School, challenges policymakers in the digital economy to start thinking about ways of integrating African languages online not only for inclusivity purposes but also for educational purposes. This study was published in 2013. Despite the passing of ten years, there are still substantial obstacles to the online presence of indigenous languages, both in the education space and socially.


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Digify Africa sat down with an Isi-Zulu scholar & researcher to discuss the importance of the presence of African Languages online. 

Rooweither Mabuya is a researcher at SADiLaR; her study focuses on developing the isiZulu language to develop to a level that is equal to universal standards. This will lead to the preservation of the isiZulu language by leaving a digital footprint that stands firm in the era we live in.

Why, in your opinion, is it crucial to promote indigenous languages while discussing the development of 4IR in Africa?

According to research, students absorb content much more effectively when it is presented to them in their mother tongue. So, when we promote multilingualism and our indigenous languages, we are affording the students to understand concepts and for them to think creatively and effectively when they develop 4IR tools for the benefit and development of their languages. African languages are not yet fully developed for computational tools, but we are trying to get there.

What steps can policymakers take to include African languages on online platforms?

Higher education institutions in South Africa are fostering multilingualism. This enables instruction to be conducted in any of the languages listed in the institution’s language policy. Terminology development is essential to ensure that students fully comprehend the curriculum. 

How will the inclusion of local languages in the digital economy benefit African communities? 

Integrating local languages in the digital era allows every language speaker to access any message provided by the governing entities in that community. Local media outlets, such as newspapers and radio stations, are crucial in developing and disseminating new terminology that the speaker of the language will understand and grasp. Covid allowed us to see many new terminologies develop in our local languages.

 Within a globalised, pluralised, digital-enabled world, are we taking full advantage of our unprecedented access to various languages on the continent? 

There is a lot of work being done to develop African languages and digital tools. Although most of the tools have been created, the datasets used to train these tools are in English. A morphological analyser tool may perform well for English because it was trained on the language, but it may not perform well for isiZulu, Chichewa, or Chishona because the morphological structures of English and that of Bantu languages differ significantly.

The most popular search engine on the internet, Google, has steadily added additional African languages to its Google Translate service to serve the African market better. Early this year, Google announced that it would be adding 24 new languages spoken by more than 300 million people to its Google Translate platform. Ten of the new entries are in Africa, including Tigrinya in Eritrea, Twi in Ghana, and Lingala in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although these approaches are a positive step, the continent still requires much greater language inclusivity and robust acceleration of local languages into online platforms.

More than half of the information obtained online is in English. What happens to Africa’s more than 2,000 native languages if 54% of online content is in English? These are the kind of questions we should be thinking about when engaging in the work of diversifying the African digital economy. 

The question of linguistic diversity is a significant challenge upon which social entrepreneur Chido Dzinotyiwei, has focused on enabling African language learning, translation services and access to indigenous knowledge via an online platform, ‘Vambo Academy.’ 

Based on examples like Vambo Academy and the campaign DigiAfricanLang we can see the potential and the possibility of the integration of African languages online through tools that make it easy (or at least accessible) to learn or navigate online platforms using local languages. These developments aid with the bridging of the digital divide, especially in previously disadvantaged communities that struggle to access digital resources due to the language barrier. 

To preserve linguistic and cultural diversity and to ensure that everyone who wants to participate in the digital economy is empowered, we must thus actively encourage multilingualism and ensure that content is available in the broadest range of languages.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.