South AFrica: Microsoft's "Mother-tongue technology"

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 1 14:04:09 UTC 2007

Mother-tongue technology

Thabo Mohlala

28 February 2007 01:59

Microsoft South Africa (MSA), a global software leader, has introduced a
pioneering language programme that will give a massive boost to
initiatives aimed at promoting multilingualism in South Africa. The
programme, called the Language Interface Pack, will initially be available
in Afrikaans, isiZulu and Setswana and may be accessed through Microsofts
latest version of Office 2007. Jonathan Hatchuel, MSAs Windows client and
group executive, says schools that are part of the programme will receive
computers with software already installed in the language they use. For
example, a computer for a school that teaches in isiZulu would come
complete with commands and toolbars in isiZulu.

Hatchuel says the software would be free of charge and all teachers and
learners could download it. The programme is part of MSAs global
local-language campaign. It aims to add the other official languages as
the project unfolds. The initiative echoes Education Minister Naledi
Pandors sentiments about the need to develop and use the nine indigenous
languages in schools (apart from English and Afrikaans). In an address to
a conference on language policy implementation at Unisa last year, Pandor
said: The role of language and access to language skills is critical to
enabling individuals to realise their full potential to participate in and
contribute to the social, cultural and intellectual life of the South
African society.

MSA spokesperson Kethan Parbhoo said the project is a product of
partnership between various role players, notably the Pan South African
Language Board (Pansalb), the National Language Board, various government
departments, translators and the academic community. Parbhoo said that
aside from facilitating access to technology by ordinary South Africans,
the programme also facilitates the preservation of language and culture.
He added that language has been a barrier to computer usage and that
through this effort this would be overcome. Parbhoo said standardising
technical terminology was among the first steps MSA took and that it
worked closely with academia to translate the core terms glossary for each
of the languages in development.

To retain the integrity and linguistic excellence, Parbhoo said MSA had
sent completed glossaries to Pansalb for verification. Meanwhile, Hatchuel
said the reason MSA started with Afrikaans, isiZulu and Setswana is that
overall they are technologically advanced in terms of the use of phrases.
He said the process took time, as MSA had to get consensus from the users
of the languages involved. Although he could not give the actual figure of
how much the project costs, he said it ran into millions.

Siphiwe Ntuli, who teaches grade nine at Stanger Secondary School in
KwaZulu-Natal, gave the project the thumbs-up. He said the school started
to use the software early last year and since then learners have shown
great enthusiasm and drive to use the computers. I found that learners
enjoy working on the computer and have grown in confidence simply because
it is in the language they understand. There is that sense of closeness to
it and as a result they are free to explore and learn new things on their
own, said Ntuli.

Marietta Alberts, Pansalbs manager of standardisation and terminology
development, said putting the project together was not easy. It is no easy
task to develop terminology for the various concepts being used. The
terminology and related concepts are known in English but not in the
various official South African languages. Terms have to be coined for the
various concepts to act as term equivalents for the English terminology.
She said the process also involved other Pansalb technical committees such
as the National Language Body, whose task it was to ensure the terminology
used adheres to the spelling and [cultural] conventions of the language.
This was also to ensure that no vulgar, offensive or politically incorrect
words creep in, she said. The next languages to be developed are Sesotho
sa lebowa and isiXhosa.


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