Restoring the Vernacular: the 60-year struggle for African languages

Linguistic minoritiesHow can children reach their full potential, when their early education is taught in a language that they are both uncomfortable and unfamiliar with? In countries with diverse linguistic communities this is the harsh reality for many children growing up as part of a minority group. In Africa, the problem is rendered especially tricky by the prevalence of foreign and colonial languages in education, and governments’ unwillingness to experiment with replacing them. While UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) treads the tricky path towards political change, other institutions are attempting to bolster African languages in other ways: Professor Prah and the CASAS Harmonization and Standardization of African Languages Project, for example, are determining lists of mutually-intelligible African dialects and languages (of which more here), while elsewhere, speech synthesis technology is being developed, aiming to equalise education for linguistic minorities.

By Matthew Labrooy

In Africa there are countless children in rural areas with little or no access to early-learning material and to whom the advantages of a mother-tongue education are unavailable, even though all the evidence suggests that when children from ethnic communities are offered the opportunity to learn in their mother tongue they have increased success in formal education and engage better with learning materials. UNESCO has been advocating the use of African languages in education since 1953, when a landmark report stressing the importance of educating children in their mother tongue was published, exhorting African governments to move away from the use of colonial languages in governance and instruction.

60 years on from The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education, UIL still faces an uphill struggle. While little has changed politically, the weight of the evidence has piled up, as more and more research demonstrates, according to a 2010 UIL Report, “the negative consequences of these policies: low-quality education and the marginalisation of the continent,” leading to what Professor Prah calls the “creeping amnesia of collective memory”.  The report, Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education, identifies several sectors where change must occur: the problem of delivering multilingual, mother-tongue education lies on the intersection of deeper political, cultural and developmental  issues which must each undergo a transformation before educational reform can be put in progress.

The importance of ICTs in multilingualism is also recognised by the report, and by UNESCO generally, who have started an initiative to make Multilingualism in Cyberspace a reality. Even profit-driven companies have started to recognise benefits to embracing African languages: “International companies such as Microsoft have discovered that investing in African languages is beneficial because they want to reach the estimated 100 million Kiswahili speakers residing in six African countries.” Wikipedia has also launched services in several African languages, including Malagasy, Yoruba, Tswana and Chichewa – though the number of articles in these languages is highly variable, ranging between the 100s and 10000s.

More generally, digital tools to aid young learners are becoming essential components of the classroom, and with the help of technology instruction can now be individualised – every student treated as a unique learner. A key step in achieving this was the development speech synthesis, whereby human voices are created artificially. These technological innovations, enabling (in theory) children to be taught in their mother tongue, offer a more intuitive, richer platform for children’s learning, in comparison to the traditional pen and paper approach. Research has shown that children who have had a more ‘interesting’ way of learning a certain concept will commit it to memory and apply it better.

Although speech synthesis tools exist in most major languages, currently there are few Android Text-to-Speech (TTS) technologies for local African languages, and thus no early-learner teaching tools have previously been available for speakers of minority languages, such as Zimbabwe’s Shona.

This is where eLearning Africa 2013 speaker Ian Mutamiri comes in. Mutamiri is one of a few researchers at the University of Zimbabwe developing a Text-to-Speech (TTS) application for Shona called Native Voice. Through painstaking work, he and his colleagues have developed a localised early-learning reading tool for the Android tablet.

The project was first set in motion in order to educate the thousands of children in rural areas with limited access both to early-learning material and personnel qualified to deploy these tools. The team at the University of Zimbabwe proposed that by using a local language early-learner reading application, they could aid a large number of marginalised children.

Mutamiri remarks that speech synthesis technology, despite having been available since the 80’s, has never yet been truly embraced as a tool to help the nation’s development. “We’ve spent millions on ‘lifeless’ paper, with results that are short of satisfying. We can spend just thousands on this captivating technology, and can almost guarantee positive results.”

But Native Voice is just the beginning.

“The world is changed in small steps – in little inventions that make a significant difference in the way we live, in small ideas that defeat mammoth challenges that a society faces. It is my sincerest hope that Native Voice will make a difference, if only for one child in the rural areas of Zimbabwe.”

Matamiri is a keynote speaker at the upcoming eLearning Africa 2013 in Windhoek, Namibia. Here he plans to showcase his research and the early development of the Native Voice Shona TTS application.

For more information on the eLearning Africa 2013 conference, see here.


  1. Anderson Mbiha

    In Tanzania students from the primary to university levels are getting very bad results mostly likely one of the cause is language. Debates going on to use our popular language Kiswahili as a teaching language for all levels. Vernacular is important for the better world, I agree with all percentages.

  2. Lawrence Prosper S.

    Why does it always take so long for people to recognise the humanitarian benefits of technology?

  3. Sara Zimmerman

    Technology like this will truly change the world for the better, we will see in 10 years time a new generation of highly educated African’s coming into their own.

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