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Contemporary Challenges for African Languages

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The importance of language is often overlooked in efforts to address the serious challenges that international organizations seek to address in Africa. For example, the contours of the AIDS epidemic in sub Saharan Africa are well known: according to the most recent data from UNAIDS (, a 5.2% overall adult HIV prevalence, about 2 million people newly infected each year, millions of children who have lost at least one parent to AIDS, billions of dollars spent in the battle, and suffering that has affected virtually every family. The numerous programs taking part in the world’s largest health crisis response cover a wide spectrum, from drugs manufacture, through health systems to community engagement. Arguably it is the latter that has had the biggest impact on infection rates, with HIV incidence falling in many countries during the past decade as communications outreach has led to changes in sexual behavior. Yet, thirty years into the crisis, efforts to combat HIV/AIDS continue to be slowed by the difficulties of discussing epidemiology, treatment, and prevention in Africa’s many languages.

In Africa, a billion people speak 2000 languages, and only a fraction speaks a language of global communication. For community programs to be effective, they have to be delivered in languages that the target groups understand. Translations of important terminology in areas such as health, nutrition and hygiene must be available, authoritative and universal. Creating these linguistic bridges is a major challenge.

Language often stands as an obstacle to success, whether in humanitarian programs, government or commerce. In practice, it is the local agency staff who have to provide translations, with no specific training. Where dictionaries do exist for a language, they rarely include the specialist terms needed.

This practice has spawned generations of inconsistent translations, causing confusion both within the humanitarian organizations and in the communities they wish to serve. Examples abound from direct experiences of working in Africa’s linguistic mélange, with observations of untrained staff attempting to translate terms such as “account deficit” or “waybill” or “crop rotation” or “cost/benefit analysis,” with poor results, affecting the morale of staff and the effectiveness of programs.

The Kamusi Project is an international NGO that is dedicated to producing communications resources such as dictionaries and glossaries for African languages; “kamusi” is the Swahili word for “dictionary.” With the ambition of documenting every word in Africa, the project has developed KamusiTERMS (Kamusi for Technology, Economy, Rights, Medicine, and Science) a comprehensive approach to producing terminology sets for any domain, for any language. The KamusiTERMS initiative is based on two premises:

1) Communicating with people in their own language requires much less effort, and will be much more effective, than expecting them to communicate in a foreign language that few understand
2) Every language has the capacity for full communication in any domain, provided key principles are followed for terminology development. For example, twenty years ago English did not have ICT terms for "web" or "browser," yet the productive capacities of the language were employed so that today most English speakers understand exactly what is meant by that terminology.

KamusiTERMS employs a unique participatory methodology for terminology development that maximizes the likelihood that a term set will be accepted and used by a language community. By using a combination of paid experts and community volunteers, the costs of this work are kept to a minimum.

1) Subject specialists with expertise in a language are engaged for a preliminary translation of a domain-specific terminology set,
2) The specialists are encouraged to leave question marks or multiple choices in cases of uncertainty.
3) Then members of the public are invited to comment on the problem terms, cast non-binding votes for existing proposals, and propose their own suggestions or new ways of looking at a concept. For example, a Swahili ICT community member broke an impasse by seeing "cache" as "temporary storage" rather than the English metaphor of a hiding place.
4) While the experts are still called upon to make the final decision, this democratized input and review process results in term sets that are much more likely to have universal uptake than the traditional top-down approach to terminology development.

One recent example of Kamusi’s work is an IDRC-sponsored effort by the African Network for Localization to produce a glossary of information technology terms for 10 African languages. This provides translations and definitions across all 10 languages of 2500 terms, from “absolute path” to “zoom out.” This glossary is now central to software development projects in those languages.

The Kamusi Project is seeking partners in development and humanitarian aid, to build language resources that will permanently improve the communications environment of those agencies. If language issues can be identified and addressed up front in the planning stage of a program, the community interaction will be improved, as will the effectiveness of local agency staff.

The Kamusi Project has identified a number of areas where a targeted glossary should be developed as a reusable foundation in humanitarian and development programs. The glossaries can be quickly expanded to provide for additional languages or common use terms specific to the situation. Some of the proposed glossaries are:

1) A list of common terms for disasters and emergency response. The selection of terms and languages could sensibly be made depending on key disaster risks in any area.
2) Medical vocabularies with extensions targeting particular disease risks (for example human pandemic influenza and the associated terminology of hygiene and disease containment)
3) Environmental terms relevant to habitat protection or sustainability issues
4) Specific vocabulary associated with the planning, implementation, evaluation and reporting of humanitarian and development programs. In some cases these terms may be specific to individual agencies.

The Kamusi Project works with agency partners to determine and define the terminology concepts within their domain. Kamusi will locate specialists who can work on the languages where those agencies are active, then manage those experts through the translation and community review processes. When the subject glossary for a language is complete, it will be made available to the public in numerous open source formats, thereby promoting its usefulness as a widely accepted communications resource.

With each project, the additional specialty terms and languages are added to an online database. This improves the ability of the international humanitarian community to communicate effectively in the regions where they are active. In this way, the Kamusi Project and its partners will speed the day when language diversity is harnessed as a tool to be used toward improved international cooperation, rather than remaining a barrier to a program’s success.


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•A = Active language, aligned and searchable
•c = Data 🔢 elicited through the Comparative African Word List
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•w = Data from 🔠🕸 WordNet teams

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