Localizing the Information Society for Africa
By: Tunde Adegbola (African Languages Technology Initiative)
06 June 2012
Tunde Adegbola of the African Languages Technology Initiative discusses the severe language-information divide in Africa and what needs to happen to bridge that gap.
We live today in a world of divides and we have become preoccupied with bridging the gaps. We live with an economic divide, a technology divide, an information divide and many other divides between the advanced economies of the world and the so-called developing world in which little or no development is actually taking place. These divides put a section of our world at a productivity disadvantage and thereby make it difficult for us to really operate as the global village we would like to be. A close look at the situation, however, points to a language divide as one of the important contributing factors to these other divides.
We speak here of a language divide as the gap that exists between two communities such that one community uses its own language in all important domains of their economic and social lives and the other community, which for various historical and contemporary reasons, uses a foreign language in the most important of these domains. An unfortunate consequence of this use of a foreign language in many communities is that very few of the members of such communities have the level of competence in the foreign language needed for active participation in development processes. The language gap naturally leads to an information gap, which in the information age manifests as technological, economic, social and other gaps.
There are more than 6000 languages spoken in the world today and consequently, there will always be a need for people to learn a foreign language in order to communicate with people from outside their local communities. It would be assumed, however, that people who learn foreign languages in order to communicate with others would retain their own languages and use the foreign languages only when needed. Unfortunately, most of sub-Saharan Africa today seems to have chosen to sacrifice their local languages in order to be able to communicate with the rest of the world.
The negative attitude towards local languages can be largely accounted for by Africa's colonial history, but there are also a number of contemporary circumstances that serve to reinforce the unfortunate trend. Primary among these is the effect of new information communication technologies and the globalizing consequences they have had on our world. Due to globalization, people are encountering more foreign languages. This trend is now putting local languages under even greater stress in most of Africa. Africans had in the past chosen to abandon their local languages for English, French, Portuguese and other languages of colonization, but today Africa is also contending with Chinese and other globally emerging languages.
In most of Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, these foreign languages are the language of education, bureaucracy and administration and so they have acquired the status of the language of opportunity and access, even to local markets. For this reason, any member of these African communities that does not have sufficient competence in such foreign languages becomes naturally disadvantaged. It is pertinent to note however, that these foreign languages are actually minority languages in most of these communities. Hence, the language of education, bureaucracy and administration is a minority language to the extent that many African countries are not able build the required critical mass of human development agents because the vast majority of the people have been excluded due to their inability to use the foreign languages that have been elevated to such a privileged status.
The language-information gap goes beyond development infrastructure as well. For most people in sub-Saharan Africa, user guides of machines and other appliances are hardly ever available in the local languages. Directions for use of even the most basic drugs are written in various languages such as English French, Portuguese, German and other colonial languages that are understood by a grossly insignificant percentage of the population. There is no information on the direction for use, drug interactions, possible allergies and other side effects available to the users of such drugs in the local languages. For many Africans who take medicines, the medical science of taking drugs is reduced to an act of faith.
Many in Africa still see these foreign languages as languages of prestige and opportunity and many African governments have yet to see the need to deliberately plan local languages into national life. Only an insignificantly few sub-Saharan African countries have thought it fit to develop language policies. In Nigeria for example, beyond tangential references to local language issues in the National Policy on Education, the National Broadcasting Code and a few other policy and regulatory documents, there is no coherent national language policy document that can guide legislation and drive regulation. The situation in many other sub-Saharan African countries is hardly different. (Some of the few exceptions are South Africa and Kenya.)
Abandoning local languages in favor of foreign languages marginalizes the vast population of people who constitute a potential skilled labor force by relegating them to the periphery of society because they do not understand the foreign languages. Many decades of underdevelopment are evidence that this preference for foreign languages is not conducive to progress. As the information age unfolds and we move further into the information society, much greater demands will be made of language as the foundation on which information is built. Awareness of these trends should jolt sub-Saharan Africa into a state of consciousness of the importance of language in the information age.
The African Union (AU) recently showed purposeful leadership on this issue by establishing the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) to chart the course of local language development in the whole of Africa. ACALAN has in the past few years been involved in a number of activities around cross-border vehicular languages and has also been working on improving the state of African languages in cyberspace.
As ACALAN strives to energize and revitalize the local language space in Africa, the private sector as represented by the global translation/localization industry needs to anticipate and engage this development in order to be able to play the vital role the private sector is called to play in such a developmental process. There is a vast market for the translation of books, product literature, health briefings as well as the localization of software.
However, this industry needs to be deliberately cultivated because many in Africa seem to have accepted the falsehood that their languages cannot be used successfully in certain important domains like education, particularly in education for science and technology. The translation/localization industry in Africa is still largely a nascent industry and it lacks many of the vital resources required for success. One of the important tasks of the global translation/localization in the immediate future will be to deliberately cultivate both the African translation/localization industry and market.
Tunde Adegbola is a research scientist, consulting engineer and culture activist with wide ranging experience in information and communication media systems and Human Language Technology. He holds a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Laogs, M.Sc. in Computer Science from the University of Wales and Ph.D. in Information Science (with specialisation in Human Language Technology) from the University of Ibadan.
As Executive Director of African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-i), he leads a team of researchers in adapting human language technologies (HLT’s) for African languages. His research focus is on the tonology of African languages through which he adapts various HLT’s to accommodate the tonality of African languages.
Prior to his present position as Executive Director of Alt-I, Tunde had contributed to the development of Cellular Automata Transform (CAT) as a Research Fellow at Innovative Computing Group Inc. Ohio, USA. CAT is one of the most advanced compression technologies employed on the global information infrastructure.
He designed, supplied and installed some of the most ambitious broadcasting stations in West Africa. These include Africa Independent Television (AIT, Nigeria), MITV (Nigeria), Channels Television (Nigeria) and West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR, Senegal).
He has consulted for various international and multilateral development agencies including the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Panos Institute West Africa (PIWA), UNICEF, UNDP and International Alert. He was engaged by UNICEF to evaluate and upgrade the National Radio and Television of Sao Tome and Principe and was also consultant to International Alert, UNICEF and UNDP in building a set of community radio station in Sao Tome and Principe.
In the field of film and video productions, he designed, supplied and installed production facilities for production houses such as Mainframe Film and Television Productions, Klink Studios and Media International, all in Lagos, Nigeria. These are some of the most celebrated production facilities that service the Nigerian ‘Nolywood’ film industry.
Tunde has extensive teaching experience having lectured at tertiary level from 1982 to date. At present, he teaches Artificial Intelligence as an Associate Lecturer at post-graduate level both at the Africa Regional Centre for Information Science (ARCIS) in the University of Ibadan and the Department of Systems Engineering in the University of Lagos. He also supervises Master and Doctoral projects in both institutions.
A multiple award winner, he is a British Chevening Scholar and recipient of the 2011 Unsung Hero Award of the Change A Life Foundation for “taking African cultures into the knowledge era”.
A Steering Committee Member of the Nigeria Community Radio Coalition (NCRC) and Council Member of the West African Linguistics Society (WALS), Dr. Adegbola is a highly demanded speaker at local and international seminars, workshops and conferences and has contributed numerous conference and journal papers as well as book chapters.
A keen musician, and former national sportsman, he is married with three children.