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Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Africans adapting technology to their own tongues

In places like Kenya and Ethiopia, people are creating local-language keyboards and text message systems to facilitate technology usage


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 languages.

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 be 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."

As it is now, Internet cafes are becoming 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.

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, 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, Adegbola is at work on voice recognition software that can convert spoken Yoruba into text.

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