African Languages in the Age of 4 IR ROUND TABLE

The Round Table of USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching of Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) on 29 October 2020 arose directly because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students left campuses, university teaching and learning moved online, and suddenly the digital world became the focus of all communication. This heightened the marked absence of African languages online.

USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG), under which CoPAL falls, decided it was time to address this inequality, and explore ways in which digital technologies could enhance the teaching and learning of indigenous African languages. They organised the Round Table on the theme of “African Languages in the age of 4IR” and invited three key academics in the fields of data science and machine learning within the realm of indigenous languages to make presentations.

The speakers were Dr Vukosi Marivate of the University of Pretoria, who spoke on “Using data science in the advancement of African languages”; Dr Lehlohonolo Mohasi of the National University of Lesotho who spoke on “Machine Learning and Automated Translation Systems for African Languages”; and Dr Karen Calteaux of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) who spoke on “Human Language Technologies for African Languages”.

Dr Bhaso Ndzendze, Research Director at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies, presented the keynote address on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for African languages”.

In keeping with the lockdown protocols, the event was presented online. Professor Langa Khumalo, the director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) at North-West University, facilitated the Round Table. Professor Khumalo said the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a reality across the globe, was changing the way language was used. And the technological presented opportunities for African languages and the humanities to move towards the integration of 4IR technologies in teaching and learning.

The next step, he said after the presentations, was a conversation about funding “because, without adding value or currency to African languages, no one is going to look at them, let alone put any money in them”. Another unspoken challenge arising from the event was about what needs to be done to upskill African language experts, especially in terms of the linguistic expertise required to assist technologies in annotating African languages, he said.

He said AwazeMed, the mobile app the CSIR had developed and discussed at the Round Table, was “the pride of the time’’ because it was ‘’such a contemporaneous intervention to an epidemic that is ravaging the world”. AwazeMed helps healthcare workers communicate with patients in the context of COVID-19 screening and triage, by providing translation of the anticipated conversations. It translates from English to the other South African official languages.

USAF’s CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said he was pleased the Round Table was not one of the many events postponed due to lockdown. CoPAL‘s focus on African languages is an area important to the development of the higher education system, and the Round Table was an example of the trend toward interdisciplinary thinking.

Professor Daniel Mashao, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Johannesburg, who stood in for Professor Aslam Fataar of Stellenbosch University as Respondent because of a family emergency, said when he was doing his research (into speech recognition for his PhD at Brown University in the USA in the mid-90s), “I always thought there were only about 10 or 11 people in the whole of South Africa who cared about language’’. The number of attendees at the Round Table, and its presentations about all the initiatives in 4IR and African languages, had proved him wrong.

CoPAL’s chair, Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, who is the Dean of Humanities at Stellenbosch University, said that with USAf’s support, they were going to achieve a lot for African languages.

The conference presentations and keynote address are hyperlinked to the relevant sections of the programme. See below.