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May 1, 2010

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KEYBOARD TO HELP SAVE YORUBA AND OTHER ENDANGERED AFRICAN LANGUAGES! FROM THISDAYONLINE.COM(NIGERIA)

March 1, 2008

from thisdayonline.com Keyboard for Africa’s Largest Spoken Mother Tongue
Though, global communications explosion plays a major role in the gradual yet steady extinction of languages, projects like the Yoruba Keyboard Project undertaken by African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I), winner of this year’s IICD Award on Local Content Applications are taking advantage of information technology to rescue Africa’s drowning languages writes Tunde Okoli

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The seeming preponderance of tiny language communities in contemporary times points to the fact that majority of the world’s languages are vulnerable and may not just decline, but vanish into extinction. A recent study established that most human languages today, are spoken by exceedingly few people. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) raised alarm that majority, of languages will soon vanish. The organisation backed its claim up with scary statistics. It said, over 50 percent of the world’s 6000 languages are endangered; 96 percent of the world’s 6000 languages are spoken by four percent of the world’s population; 90 percent of the world’s languages are not represented on the Internet and that one language is disappearing on average every two weeks.

Studies have identified some of the forces which make for language loss to include: the impacts of rapid growth in urbanization, Westernization and global communications, all serving to diminish the self-sufficiency and self-confidence of small and traditional communities. This is aside the fact that discriminatory policies, and population movements are also taking their toll of languages. Post-modern linguists are of the opinion that languages are being lost, because we now live in a world that is fast contracting to a tiny global village. A world where a defined identity is what makes a man, nation, or race. A world where everyman, community, nation or race need a strong presence in the world’s information superhighway to remain in sight.

More than ever before, people across the world are awake to the reality of saving their mother tongues from extinction. This is because it is the first mark of being and identity.

Africa has been at the receiving end in world development. More than any other continent in the world, the continent has lost of most of its indigenous languages, by extension culture to modernity.

The advent of information technology has opened new vistas in world information order. And researchers are taking advantage of the phenomenon to salvage endangered languages. It is in the light of this that the effort of African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I), a research and development organisation headed by Tunde Adegbola, a computer scientist and linguist, is receiving accolades from within and outside Nigeria for developing Africa’s first indigenous language keyboard – the Yoruba Keyboard for which it won this year’s edition of IICD Award on Local Content Applications of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).

The award is one of the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) Media Awards of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The award aims to recognize users of innovative or pioneering applications of ICTs to local content defined as ‘the expression of the locally owned and adapted knowledge of a community’ in Africa. It is established to recognise and reward efforts from different sectors using any medium with a demonstrated link with ICTs that provide opportunities for local people to interact and communicate with each other, expressing their own ideas’ knowledge and culture in their own languages. The Alt-I-developed Yoruba Keyboard Project fits that bill, especially for its innovative features and in applying ICT to the local context. Moreso, because of the present needs of the continent.

Adegbola disclosed that he was inspired to develop the scheme when he realised the need to save the Yoruba language, which he described as ‘the largest spoken mother tongue in Africa’, by extension other African languages and its literature from going extinct as the world inches faster into the information age. Yoruba language, by extension most African languages, according to him, are tonal languages in which tone marks play important role when communicating.

He said it is a fact that the common personal computer (PC), as it is today, is not designed to accommodate text in many, if not all African languages. “Neither the hardware nor the software on most popular computer platforms considers the language needs of the African. Hence, African computer users are constrained to communicate with their kith and kin in languages other than their mother tongues.” Usually, desperate African computer users have to device rather awkward and often tortuous means to force the computer to produce text that may bear some resemblance to those based on the orthographies of their mother tongues.

Prior to Alt-I’s Yoruba Keyboard, most approaches for the application of tone marks to Yoruba texts on the computer have been based on desperation. Alt-I’s research reveals that for Yoruba, the production of one single character may sometimes require up to five keystrokes on the computer keyboard. “In response, Alt-I developed a statistical language model of Yoruba language and designed an ergonomic and efficient keyboard layout for the typing of Yoruba texts,” he said.

He explained with video demonstrations that the Yoruba Keyboard layout which is a modification of the QWERTY keyboard guarantees that no Yoruba character will require more that two keystrokes. “The keyboard layout is based on the statistical distribution of characters in typical Yoruba documents, taking due advantage of the unique features of the Yoruba language in relation to the English language on which the QWERTY keyboard is based. The scheme takes advantage of the fact that written Yoruba never uses the letters Q, Z, X, C and V, to develop Yoruba fonts and other software complements that take account of the complete Yoruba character set and remap the QWERTY keyboard accordingly,” he said.

The first Yoruba Keyboard layout developed by Alt-I took advantage of widespread familiarity with the QWERTY layout. But they found this somewhat deficient. Yoruba language being a very tonal language places premium of certain letters, especially vowels and diacritical signs which are frequently used. These letters are found to be too far from the strong fingers. Alt-I then remodel another layout based on the statistical distribution of characters in typical Yoruba texts that enhance typing efficiency and user ergonomics. The rearranged keyboard shares the general principle of the Dvorak layout of the English keyboard.

Adegbola explained that “Yoruba is a tone language in which meaning is determined by appropriate combination of consonants and vowels as well as tones. The need to represent tones in written form presents an orthography challenge, particularly for the computer. This is because, when the Yoruba orthography was developed, nobody anticipated the computer age. But we are today faced with the reality. Even though Yoruba orthography is based on the Latin script (which has enjoyed generous attention in computing), the need to indicate tones by the application of diacritical signs in position that are not normally supported by popular computing platforms presents a fundamental problem for Yoruba literature in the digital age. That challenge lead us into developing the Yoruba Keyboard,” he said.

Aside developing the Yoruba keyboard, Alt-I is also developing a Yoruba text-to-speech software, which Adegbola said, “would educate even those we considered literate to effectively read and write Yoruba.” For him, though Yoruba has a mature writing system, there is still a high level of illiteracy, among the Yoruba. And due to the widespread use of English as the language of education and officialdom in Nigeria, many literate Yoruba are incapable of reading Yoruba with fluency. Furthermore, the circumstances of the differently-abled (particularly the blind) Yoruba can be substantially improved by the creative use of modern ICTs. According to him, it is in realisation of this fact that Alt-I is implementing the Yoruba text-to-speech software with which a common multimedia computer would read any Yoruba text typed in standard orthography. “This automatic Yoruba text reader which will read any Yoruba text in standard orthography with functional intelligibility is presently undergoing aesthetic enhancements,” he enthused.

As the world proceeds into the information age with more and more of human interactions being mediated by information technologies, he disclosed that Alt-I aims to continue to strive to ensure the inclusion of as many African peoples as possible in the information society by making their languages relevant to information technologies.

The initiative is aimed at salvaging dying African, by extension world languages. “Alt-I aims at appropriating Human Language Technologies (HLT) for use in African languages via advocacy and service projects.” To this end, one component of the project addresses HLT awareness and research capacity building by supporting the Africa Regional Centre for Information Science in the University of Ibadan. Alt-I is also contributing to the research on the Yoruba language which is spoken by about 30 million people in Nigeria, Benin and Togo. The research led to the designing and implementation of the Yoruba Keyboard and consultations towards the standardization of mapping of the full Yoruba character set in ASCII and UNICODE and Yoruba text-to-speech software to meet the information demand among non-literate people.

“We recognise that people who are not literate in the normal languages of communication suffer certain deficiencies. We at Alt-I want to be able to use this software to take development information to the nooks and crannies of Nigeria.”

Alt-I found in the Yoruba language a convenient starting point for obvious reasons. “One, because it is the largest spoken mother tongue language in Africa. Two, because Yoruba was Africa’s first language to be written. It was written in the 1800s, so has a matured orthography. Three being that it is the only language in the whole of Africa that has been used to write a Ph.D. thesis.”

This notwithstanding, he said “we do not intend to stop there. For Alt-I, the award provides a much needed impetus to continue on a project that our immediate environment does not seem to recognise as necessary. We celebrate therefore, not merely because the award bestows international recognition and honour on our work, but because at least somebody somewhere is in agreement with us that language is the soul of culture and that death of any language spells the death of the culture it supports.”

He stated that the lessons learnt in the Yoruba project and the best practices that were developed in the process have inevitably become part of the body of academic literature of human language technology which are available as intellectual foundation for work in other African languages.

“It is rather heartening that barely three weeks ago, while the award ceremonies were being held in Addis Ababa, I was in Bubaque, one of the 28 islands of the Bijagos archipelago, off the coast of Guinea Bissau discussing the prospects of extending the evolving orthography of the language of the Bijagos into forms that will ease their use on the computer.” For him, any orthography being developed now should take into consideration, the application of information technology.

He explained that Africa’s development will only come when it is tied to its culture with language as the anchor. “Asian countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea among others as good examples of countries with culture-based developmental plans. These countries learn science in their own languages.” Hence, he suggested a return to Professor Babatunde Fafunwa’s earlier experiment wherein science was taught in Nigeria in indigenous languages. “The experiment, we would recall, never produced a single drop-out,” he said.

For now, Alt-I’s Yoruba Keyboard is not yet available in Word Document. “We hope to approach big time players like Microsoft to help develop it in MS Word. Once they know that the application has a potential of about 30 or 40 million prospective users across the world, they will do it,” he said.

Market the software then would pose no problem. In fact, he said Alt-I is not particularly interested in the commercial viability of the venture now. “Alt-I is a research and development organisation. When the time comes, we will identify a capable marketing outfit to handle the marketing of the product.”

For him, the money’s worth of the awards, ($1, 500) is not the issue. “I see the award as confirming that what I have spent the last 20 years doing is correct. It does not matter the money’s worth. We live in a world where every Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, or Idoma, is speaking English to their children. The value of it (the awards) to me is that we’ve done something that will make the impetus to other African languages, something that will glamourise the Yoruba language and make Africans love their respective mother tongues,” he enthused.

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“Back to Africa “:physically,spiritually,culturally, and morally!

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July 24, 2007

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