Overview of use of African languages in ICT

A quick overview of web content, use in e-mail, use in non-internet applications, and localization of software and web interfaces, helps to elucidate the situation.

[NB- This is an early draft of material that was adapted from other work for the Survey Document]

The Web

African languages are represented on the web, but not prominently as media of communication. The actual level of use is emerging as a topic of discussion.

It is easy to get the impression that African language content is rare. To begin with, simple surveys of web content by language that relied on search engines unsurprisingly did not find enough in African languages, even the ones most widely spoken, to rank them as high as some minority European languages with relatively few speakers.

More focused or systematic surveys have come up with more interesting results. For instance, an informal survey done in Tanzania in 2001 as part of a larger report for the Swedish International Development Agency estimated that ten percent of websites with a Tanzanian focus had at least some Swahili content (Miller Esselaar Associates, 2001), but most of the sites did not have majority content in the language. A more extensive study by Diki-Kidiri and Edema (2003) found a significant number of sites that treat African languages in one way or another, but these generally have minimal content in the languages themselves. In effect, a large proportion consists of sites about African languages, including online dictionaries and instructional pages.

On the other hand, Van der Veken and de Schryver (2003), using a different search methodology and statistical extrapolation, suggest that there may actually be more African language web content than we realize.*

A useful schema to attempt to understand this evolving situation is that proposed by Ballantyne (2002) for analyzing content in terms of two parameters: “expression,” or whether the content is of local or international origin, and “application,” or whether the audience is local or international. Much web content relating to Africa, even concerning African languages, and whatever the origin, has an external and largely non-African audience, and so would logically tend to use languages understood internationally. Also, much of the web content with intended local application originates from outside of Africa, where production of content in languages other than English, French or Portuguese is not an easy option. What is at issue here is in part the extent to which content originating outside of Africa is adapting to use of African languages, but more importantly the evolution of content of local origin and local application that can naturally and efficiently use those languages.

E-mail and E-mail Lists

E-mail has long been a significant use of the limited internet connectivity in Africa. By its nature it is harder to track the contents but there is other information that can be used to get an indication of the use of African languages for this purpose. For instance, there are two web-based e-mail services that provide for composition in several African languages – Africast.com and Mailafrica.net. In addition, recent years have seen the setting up of a number of e-mail fora in which much or most of the traffic is in one or another African language. For instance there are several Hausa and Swahili lists in which these, probably the most widely spoken indigenous tongues on the continent are the primary languages of communication, and Van der Veken and de Schryver (2003) found fora in Hausa, Somali, and Lingala.

Non-Internet use of African languages in computing

It is harder still to attempt to quantify the degree to which African languages are used in the content of computer applications in Africa, for instance on word processors for the production of printed documents. Among users in this category have been specialists in African languages and linguists in Africa and beyond. Certainly the publication of books and news in African languages is computerized using specialized publication software, but use on public, office and personal computers is less visible.

As for popular usage, a glimpse of African language use on computers in a Senegalese telecenter is given in a brief article (Elder 2002) that mentions use of Pulaar and Wolof. Also in Senegal, a local non-governmental organization, ANAFA, has been doing computer training (including basic literacy) in national languages. Beyond such anecdotal evidence however, there are apparently no surveys of such non-internet use.

Software and web-interface localization

Localization of software and web-interfaces for African languages is getting increasing attention. There have been efforts for localizing software on smaller scales for several years, but these are becoming more numerous and the level of activity is increasing.

The recent agreements concluded by Microsoft Corporation to localize for Swahili (Anyanzua 2004), Wolof (APS 2004), and Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo (This Day 2004) indicate the importance that the company is attaching to the issue. Their announcement early last year (Microsoft Corporation 2004) concerning its increased work on localizing its software, including for Africa, follows on preparation that apparently goes back some years.

Localization of open-source software is also making news. A localization project for South African languages, Translate.org.za], has received a fair amount of attention, announcing completion of software in [[Zulu, Sepedi, and Afrikaans last year. In late 2004 another open source localization project, in Uganda, released a web browser in Luganda (Otter 2004), and a Tanzanian-based project, Kilinux, completed a Swahili-language wordprocessor. Other projects are in the works though information on them is sometimes not readily available.

There are also some African projects that have produced software for composition in African languages but without language localized commands, including several based in or focusing on Nigeria - Kọnyin, Afárá, ALT-I, and Paradigm.

As for web-interfaces, the popular search engine Google has had a program for localized versions that already have several African language versions translated by volunteers. A “V-webmail” e-mail interface was recently localized for Swahili. There may be more of this sort of language localization going on than is apparent, but one concern with easier localization such as that offered by Google is the quality of the translations done by volunteers.