NYTimes.com Article: Using a New Language in Africa to Save Dying Ones

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Using a New Language in Africa to Save Dying Ones

November 12, 2004

NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov. 11 - Swahili speakers wishing to use a
"kompyuta" - as computer is rendered in Swahili - have been
out of luck when it comes to communicating in their tongue.
Computers, no matter how bulky their hard drives or
sophisticated their software packages, have not yet
mastered Swahili or hundreds of other indigenous African

But that may soon change. Across the continent, linguists
are working with experts in information technology to make
computers more accessible to Africans who happen not to
know English, French or the other major languages that have
been programmed into the world's desktops.

There are economic reasons for the outreach. Microsoft,
which is working to incorporate Swahili into Microsoft
Windows, Microsoft Office and other popular programs, sees
a market for its software among the roughly 100 million
Swahili speakers in East Africa. The same goes for Google,
which last month launched www.google.co.ke, offering a
Kenyan version in Swahili of the popular search engine.

But the campaign to Africanize cyberspace is not all about
the bottom line. There are hundreds of languages in Africa
- some spoken only by a few dozen elders - and they are
dying out at an alarming rate. The continent's linguists
see the computer as one important way of saving them.
Unesco estimates that 90 percent of the world's 6,000
languages are not represented on the Internet, and that one
language is disappearing somewhere around the world every
two weeks.

"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

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.
Wireless computer networks are appearing - there is one at
the Nairobi airport and another at the Intercontinental
Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda's capital - but they are geared for
the wealthy not the working class.

Extending the computer era to the remote reaches of Africa
requires more than just wiring the villages. Experts say
that software must be developed and computer keyboards
adapted so that Swahili speakers and those who communicate
in Amharic, Yoruba, Hausa, Sesotho and many other languages
spoken in Africa feel at home.

Mr. Adegbola, executive director of the African Languages
Technology Initiative, has developed a keyboard able to
deal with the complexities of Yoruba, a tonal language.
Different Yoruba words are written the same way using the
Latin alphabet - the tones that differentiate them are
indicated by extra punctuation. It can take many different
keystrokes to complete a Yoruba word.

To accomplish the same result with fewer, more comfortable
keystrokes, Mr. Adegbola made a keyboard without the
letters Q, Z, X, C and V, which Yoruba does not use. He
repositioned the vowels, which are high-frequency, to more
prominent spots and added accent marks and other symbols,
creating what he calls Africa's first indigenous language
keyboard. Now, Mr. Adegbola is at work on voice recognition
software that can convert spoken Yoruba into text.

Related research is under way in Ethiopia. Amharic, the
official language, has 345 letters and letter variations,
which has made developing a coherent keyboard difficult.
Further complicating the project, the country also has its
own system of time and its own calendar.

Still, computer experts at Addis Ababa University are
making headway. Recently, they came up with a system that
will allow Amharic speakers to send text messages, a
relatively new phenomenon in the country.

The researchers involved in the project envision it as more
than a way for Amharic-speaking teenagers to gossip among
themselves. Text messaging could be a development tool,
they say, if farmers in remote areas of the country can get
instant access to coffee prices or weather reports.

The Ethiopian researchers hope a cellphone maker will see
the country's millions of Amharic speakers as a big enough
market to turn their concept into a commercial Amharic

Mr. Adegbola has similar dreams. He is distributing his
keyboard free to influential Yoruba speakers, hoping to
attract some deep-pocketed entrepreneur who could turn it
into a business venture.

In South Africa, researchers at the Unit for Language
Facilitation and Empowerment at the University of the Free
State are working on a computerized translation system
between English and two local languages, Afrikaans and
Southern Sotho. Cobus Snyman, who heads the project, said
the goal is to extend the system to Xhosa, Venda, Tsonga
and other South African languages.

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. Besides
Swahili, the company is looking at making its products more
available to those who speak Amharic, Zulu and Yoruba and
the other two widely used languages in Nigeria - Hausa and

In Kenya, Microsoft has rounded up some of the region's top
Swahili scholars to come up with a glossary of 3,000
technical terms - the first step in the company's effort to
make Microsoft products accessible to Swahili speakers.

Sitting around a conference table recently in Microsoft's
sleek offices in downtown Nairobi, the linguists discussed
how to convey basic words from the computer age in Swahili,
also known as Kiswahili, beginning with the most basic one
of all.

"When these modern machines arrived, Kiswahili came up with
a quick word for something that didn't exist in our
culture," said Clara Momanyi, a Swahili professor at
Kenyatta University in Nairobi. "That was 'kompyuta.' "

But scholars subsequently opted for a more local term to
describe these amazing machines, she said. It is
tarakilishi, which is a combination of the word for "image"
and the word for "represent."

The Swahili experts grappled with a variety of other words.
How does one say folder? Should it be folda, which is
commonly used, or kifuko, a more formal term?

Is a fax a faksi, as the Tanzanians call it, or a kipepesi?

Everyone seemed to agree that an e-mail message was a barua
pepe, which means a fast letter. Everyone also seemed to
agree that the effort they were engaged in to bring Swahili
to cyberspace was long overdue.

"Every continent seems to have a language in the computer,
and here we are with nothing," said Mwanashehe Saum
Mohammed, a Swahili expert at the United States
International University in Nairobi and one of the
Microsoft consultants. "This will make Africans feel part
of the world community. The fact that the continent is full
of poor people doesn't mean we shouldn't be on the world
map - or in the computer."



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