The Logic of Localizing African Languages

The Logic of Localizing African Languages
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January 3, 2018
Renato and Michael with Manuela Noske
Africa is a place where technology and trade are expected to grow at an accelerated pace over the next decade. The population is also projected to double by 2050. What are the challenges and opportunities localization providers face as a new generation of Africans increasingly demands personalized content in their own language? Join us for a fascinating discussion. 
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Speaker Transcript
Renato I am Renato Beninatto.
Michael And I am Michael Stevens.
Renato Today in our podcast we’re going to talk about African languages. This fascinating world, the future of business, where the growth of technology and trade is expected to accelerate in the next 10-20 years. A new generation of users of content.
Michael Yes, and it’s great, because we have taken a look at some of the health crises that have gone on and what language has to do with that in Africa. Today we get to hear from someone who for some of their career has spent time developing products and making sure products work in Africa. There’s a whole world and as long as I’ve been in the industry, it seems like it’s a future state, but we’re getting closer to it.
Renato To the reality. So, let’s listen to it.
Manuela I’m Manuela Noske, I’m a Communications Manager at GALA, the Globalization and Localization Association, and I am, by background, an African linguist.
Renato But you’re not African.
Manuela No, and I don’t have to be.
Michael No. Did GALA hire you because of the large presence they have in Africa?
Manuela No, they didn’t. So they hired me because they wanted somebody who comes from the client side of the localization industry, bringing that to GALA there. It’s an industry association that is value to them, because that is part of the audience that they’re trying to serve. And Communications Manager is a new role for me. I haven’t done that in the past, I find it fascinating, very interesting. Lots to learn, and I’m very happy with what I do.
Michael And GALA’s a great organization. We know we have lots of listeners who have found us through them, so that’s wonderful. You mentioned being on the client side and African languages. Is that when you were first exposed to working with African languages, or did you have an interest before that?
Manuela No, my interest goes way back. I have a master’s degree in African Languages from the University of Cologne, decades ago. Done research in Africa, done some business in Africa, so there’s been an ongoing interest in the continent.
Renato But African languages seems like an awfully big amount of languages.
Manuela It is a big amount of languages, yes.
Renato So do you specialize in all the African languages or do you focus on certain parts?
Manuela Depending on how you count them, there’s between 1,000 and 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, and the languages that I focused on for my academic interest were languages in East Africa. So the region of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania was the area that I was interested in, but professionally I’ve worked with a wider variety of languages in Southern Africa as well as in Western Africa. So the largest languages on the continent are the ones that have gotten localized into, and so those are the ones that I’ve worked with.
Renato So these would be how many?
Manuela At Microsoft we localized into 12 African languages. There are three that we’re doing in Nigeria, Hausa… or we were doing in Nigeria. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, Wolof in Senegal, in Ethiopia, Amharic and Tigrinya; Swahili for all of East Africa, and then in South Africa, we do a total of five, including Afrikaans. I forgot Rwanda. Kinyarwanda in Rwanda.
Renato Okay. That’s fascinating. Because for localization you need also to have a significant consumer base, you need to have computers to be done there, but it’s a little bit the chicken and the egg problem. It’s a classic problem that we have in localization. Do you get people to use computers because the software is localized, or do you localize because people have computers? What was the strategy, the commercial strategy for localizing into African languages, if there was one?
Manuela I think it’s a hard problem. I think the thinking was exactly that we wanted to… there is a market there, and that the understanding slowly evolved that Africans don’t speak as much English or French or Spanish as people commonly believe. So the common people in Africa tend to speak their local vernaculars, and on top of it they’re polyglot. They speak a lot of the lingua francas, the vernaculars in the region, and so I think the thinking was simply that we needed to have and build a presence in those countries, in those languages, to attract more customers.
Renato So what is the difference between localizing into a European or Asian language and an African language?
Manuela Well, there’s lots of difference actually, and I think it starts with the problem that many of these languages are spoken languages; they’re hardly written, and there aren’t any real standards yet. So, the languages that I’ve listed, the 12, they’re on a spectrum essentially. Swahili has a fairly long history of writing already; so does Amharic, but languages like Zulu, for instance, their written heritage is younger, and so there are lots of problems that come with that in terms of terminology, writing standards. How do you actually spell these different words? How do you call something and how do you actually use the language for written communication?

Those are huge topics in African languages. Plus, there’s the perception by many people that these languages are really languages of the heart, languages that are used in the home to communicate with your loved ones, they’re not languages that you use in business. So how can you develop terminology for businesses in these different languages? People sometimes reject the notion, like, ‘I speak Zulu at home, but I wouldn’t speak it in the workplace, so why would I read Zulu in the workplace?’ So, trying to bridge that and basically try to assist in the development of these languages was part of the goal as well.
Michael So just an average speaker would be hesitant to use their native language in the workplace.
Manuela Yes, And sometimes they don’t have much of a choice, because these are all multi… with the exception of Kinyarwanda, maybe, or Lesoto, all of these countries are multi-lingual countries, and so…
Renato Because they are artificial boundaries created by the colonial powers, essentially.
Manuela Yes, and there are lots and lots of different ethnic entities. So, when you come into the city, any number of languages are spoken, and so in East Africa, fortunately, Swahili has been developed as the lingua franca, the language of commerce and business; it’s the commercial language—sorry, it’s the national language as well—and so people use Swahili then to communicate with people from other areas. So, when you’re in the workplace, you can’t be sure that anybody really speaks your language, so then the first choice is Swahili, the second choice would then be English, or in some other areas of Africa, French.
Renato Have you monitored how behavior towards technology has changed after you localized the products into those languages?
Manuela We’ve tried to understand what’s the adoption rate? How receptive are people to it? These are difficult questions, and I don’t think we’ve really done a stellar job in trying to figure that out and really unpacking what’s happening there. What we’re finding when we sit down, we’ve done it only… I’ve only been involved in one informal study for Swahili, is when you first show the interface in Swahili there is true bewilderment. People look and go, ‘What’s this? What are you saying?’ In worst cases, they would start laughing about what you’ve presented to them and then, you know, ‘What? Is there something wrong? Is there something funny?’ and it’s just, ‘No, it’s unusual, it’s uncommon.’

For many of the languages, especially the larger ones that we localized into, there’s also a state called diglossia, which is there’s an accepted written standard, but what people speak is quite different from that standard. So, they will look at what you’ve produced and say, ‘Oh, that’s the good Swahili or the right Swahili, but it’s not really the language that we speak.’ So, the central problem is that we need to really—the nut that we need to crack—is how can we produce content or a software interface that actually reflects the language that is spoken and not the language that the academy has decreed is the right kind of Swahili?
Michael Are people more apt to embrace a new technology when it’s in their spoken language and what they’re more familiar with, rather than the… or is it a feeling thing? Why would that be the standard rather than the academic standard?
Manuela You know, it’s a good question, and I’ve seen both reactions to it, so let me give you an example. Last time I was in Kenya, for kicks we went around and asked people, ‘When you use an ATM…’ and we asked just about anybody, like receptionists and waiters and whatnot. ‘When you use an ATM, what language do you use to withdraw money?’ because the ATM displays in both English and in Swahili, and about half of them said, ‘Well, when it comes to money, I want to make sure, so I use English,’ and the other half said the exact opposite, ‘When it comes to money, I want to make sure; I use only Swahili.’

And so you’re like, ‘Well, what is it? Is it more trustworthy in your language, or is it just the opposite? Do you feel this is the field or the area of business and commerce and so English is the more appropriate tool to use?’ So, I think the word is still out if it really helps people to understand technology or participate better in technology when it’s in their local language, rather than a foreign language. The English and French still carry a lot of prestige and a lot of status, and it matters a whole lot.
Renato It’s interesting, because this new generation, the digital natives, in those countries, it’s one thing when you localize it for the first time a few years ago, but now there is a whole generation that is growing up with mobile devices, mobile is very advanced in Africa, banking, mobile banking is more advanced than in many countries, and there is a whole generation that is growing up already with content in Swahili.

I remember from my times working in the Czech Republic that during the period of Czechoslovakia, everybody understood Czech and Slovak, and they say that today the Slovak kids have a hard time understanding Czech and vice-versa, even though the languages are very similar. I imagine that something like this might start to happen because of Snapchat in Swahili or in Kinyarwanda or whatever other language, and Facebook. I

I remember a story from Iris Oris from Facebook, that she said that they did a survey, and they asked if people wanted to use Facebook in Swahili or in English, and the majority said English. When they launched the product in Swahili, 90% or 70%, a very high percentage, I don’t know exactly what percentage, but a very high percentage of the users immediately switched to Swahili, because that’s the language they speak at home.
Manuela Yes, and honestly Swahili is a slam dunk case. If you want to have a presence in East Africa, you have to do it in Swahili. It’s the language people really identify with, but you have to look at the different regions. In other regions it’s a different case and some of those other… like West Africa, they may truly prefer French. But in East Africa Swahili is a must-have.
Renato But you have a favorite language, and that’s not Swahili.
Manuela Well, I have a number of favorite languages, yes.
Renato And it’s not German either.
Manuela It’s not German, no. No, I mean, when it comes to African languages I am partial to the Nilotic languages, like Maasai, Turkana, Karamojong, Teso. Those are the ones I’m most fascinated by. So those are the classic cattle herders, the nomads of East Africa. They’ve won my heart, and those are the languages I studied academically, but those are not languages that I think anybody would ever localize into.
Renato What is so attractive about these languages?
Manuela Oh, it’s not the languages. It’s the cultures—you know, the way the people interact, the way they communicate, their world view—that has really attracted me. They’re almost the opposite of all that we hold dear in the Western world, and so I’m just fascinated by that contrast, to be quite honest.
Renato But these Nilotic languages, what do they have in common? Sounds? Grammar? What is the element that unifies them?
Manuela It’s all (of it). They’re related languages. There are three different branches, and so they’re more or less related, but within those branches they’re genetically related. Essentially, they go back to one ancestor language, and then they developed, just like German and Dutch are related languages, so all of these languages are related. Yes, so they share some grammatical elements, they share some lexicon, all of that. Some of the phonology’s shared as well, so yes, they’re related.
Michael And talk to us a little bit about the culture that’s so attractive. My grandfather was a cattle herder, so I completely relate that cattle people are great.
Manuela Yes, well, it’s about survival, and it’s about survival all the time, and so the decisions that you make on a daily basis to survive and to get on. They’re very hostile, and it’s funny to be talking about this and finding this attractive, but they’re the only people I ever lived among who really will not smile at you, regardless of what happens. They stare at you and they stare at you fiercely, it’s very intimidating. There’s just no culture of friendliness and openness, and they’re also known as very avid cattle raiders, so they will go after one another. They used to go after one another with spears and now, unfortunately, they would with assault rifles, and the cattle raids are deadly. Sometimes 10, 20, 30 people will die, and it’s all about the cows.

So, I don’t know if you know the story about the Maasai and the cows, but their thinking is that any cow that exists in this world must at some point have been a Maasai cow, and if it’s with another tribe, then it must have gotten stolen from them. So that is their attitude. There’s true pride and ownership, and that leads to these cattle raids, because those cows over there, they look attractive…they must have been ours and somebody took them.
Michael Of course, they’re the most beautiful cows.
Manuela That is how you justify this, yes.
Michael Wow. And that is very much a surprise answer to the culture question. I was expecting something about like, ‘Oh, they’re so generous, they’re so insightful, or they see nature as this,’ but that is fascinating.
Renato How about words? Are there words that only exist in these languages that you have come across? Are they documented?
Manuela You mean concepts that are unique to them?
Renato Yes.
Manuela Yes, to some extent. So, if you like a drink that consists of cow milk mixed in with blood, that’s unique and only they will consume that.
Renato How do they call it? Coca-Cola?
Manuela I do not know. Good idea, but no, I don’t know, and then they have different terms in the different languages, but yes, that’s very unique to the culture.
Renato Okay, that’s fantastic. Fascinating.
Michael So you’ve worked with one major technology company who had an interest in this area. What do companies need to know? Because I don’t think most people could even give a list of African languages off the top of their head. Where do they start? What should they be considering? Is it important that they consider Africa now?
Manuela I think it is. I mean, there are a billion people living in Africa right now, and by 2050 it’s projected to be two billion people, which means that there’s going to be a billion people under the age of 35 there in 2050, so it’s a young population. That population needs to get educated, that population will need to find jobs. So there’s a rich environment there for companies to be working with a whole lot of young consumers. I think for that reason alone it’s important.

Really, I think the best source to the state for languages in Africa is Ethnologue. They do keep up-to-date, their data is pretty accurate, so I think the key is always finding what are the most important languages, the ones with the most speakers, and I think Ethnologue gives pretty accurate information about that. So that’s a source I would definitely go to.

I think it is important for companies to work with these languages and with these different cultures. I think one thing to know and understand is that many of the languages in Africa evolve more rapidly than languages in Europe, and it’s just a phenomenon, and it’s part of what I described earlier of this…the big urban areas being these melting pots of different cultures. People come from the countryside, they live in Nairobi or they live in Dar es Salaam, and in order to communicate, they have this common vernacular, but because it accommodates so many different cultures and languages, it assumes and assimilates more of those languages as well.

And if you begin to localize you may find that after five years, your terminology is pretty outdated and you need to move on. So, it just leads to the situation where you have to constantly update, essentially, your interface or your content to keep up with development of these different languages.
Michael There’ll be more involvement, more maintenance.
Renato How about resources? Many of our listeners own LSPs, many of our listeners are translators. How do you engage with opportunities like this? How did you find the resources to do this type of work that was being done for the first time, in your case? There are going to be many languages that are going to be added, that are going to go through the same process, right?
Manuela Yes, it’s an interesting question, because 10 years ago when we started there wasn’t much of an ecosystem of vendors in the different countries. So initially, you actually reached out to the different universities asking for help. Who would be a credible source for us to work with? And in some cases we actually worked with universities, the different language departments, to help us get started. Then we worked with some technology companies that said, ‘Okay, we can do this on top of it. Explain to us what you need, we’ll deliver.’ Then we had to put more resources into the training.

But 10 years later there actually is a fairly good ecosystem now of localization vendors that are reliable and that have learned the trade. So I think right now is actually a pretty good time to be going in there. You will find reliable resources to work with. But it took an initial investment and I think we made that investment, and I think that is paying off.
Michael At what point does a standard localization practice for companies including Africa become standard? When do we get there? It’s always a future state, or it has been since I’ve been in the industry.
Manuela Yes, I mean, it’s an interesting question in the sense that when you look at the mobile industry, what we always say about Africa is they skipped the landlines and went straight to mobile. Given that the majority of these languages are strong spoken languages but maybe not written standardized languages, you know what, one thing to definitely consider is, is it feasible to skip the writing stage and work on speech interfaces first and foremost? What would it take, what’s the change then in how we create UIs so that people can actually interact with the computer without that text, and text that they may not be able to either read or understand becomes an impediment to them using technology? So, there may be another leapfrogging that may need to happen for many of these languages.

End of conversation

Manuela Noske

Manuela Noske is a Communications Manager at GALA (Globalization and Localization Association). She is a seasoned program manager with 15 years of experience working on internationalization, localization and language technology at the enterprise level.


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