In a country with 12 official languages, multi-lingual technology is king

Posted by Vis Naidoo, Citizenship Lead, Microsoft South Africa

Many of the world's 6 000 languages are absent from the public arena, and 50 percent are in danger of disappearing altogether.

As we observe Mother Language Day around the world today, we are also celebrating it in our own “Rainbow Nation”, where 10 million citizens speak isiZulu as their first-language, 8 million isiXhosa, 4 million Sesotho sa Leboa and 6.5 million Afrikaans, to name but a few. In fact, in South Africa, more than 47 million people use 25 different languages every single day.

I sit in the fortunate position, here at the southern tip of Africa, of having learnt to speak bits of the official and unofficial languages outside of English that are spoken here. Outside of talking technology I try to limit my use of English as I deal with NGOs and business partners whose first language this is not - most of my fellow South Africans speak one of the 11 official languages of the country.

Although my ideal world constitutes a place where everybody is able to talk to each other freely, unhindered by obstacles like language and access to technology, there’s tremendous empowerment in working in your own language.

First languages play an important role in the integration of all aspects of public life, but especially so in education. Yet half of all South Africans don't have access to technology, and when they do, English is more often than not, not a language they can fully understand.

Nurturing a rich linguistic diversity depends on these languages becoming more than just vehicles of cultural heritage – they must also become vehicles of opportunity for advancement. South Africa’s much-acclaimed multilingual language policy was born of the need to recognise and support those African languages that were marginalised in the past. However, with English still dominating as the official language in most sectors of society, mother-tongue speakers of South Africa’s other 10 official languages have received the short end of the stick.

Through Microsoft’s broader Local Language Program, we have seen first-hand how providing software programmes in local languages has opened up new worlds for education and the economic participation of millions, and especially so in adults and for continuing education among South Africa’s previously disadvantaged communities.

Our partnership with local translation vendor Web-lingo over the years has seen the successful translation of our software and operating systems into the four language streams of Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho sa Leboa.
In a country whose indigenous languages formed the basis of local cultures, it was no easy task to apply language, culture and preferred “look and feel” nuances such as idiomatic expressions and color sensitivities to the localization of these language interface packs into the correct technical lexis for each vernacular.

In fact, when Web-lingo originally had to translate the 4 million words used in the Office 2007 suite and Vista operating system into the four languages, this herculean task took the 40 linguists and project managers working on it many hundreds of hours to successfully complete.
The real test was translating words such as ‘broadband’ and ‘network’, because in languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa and Sesotho sa Leboa, a direct translation simply doesn't exist. For us, it was really important to protect the languages and address their specific needs when designing the translations.

Languages in general have a wider social function – they reflect the dynamic growth of science and technology. As a language is used less and less, speakers lose confidence and pride in it. The creation of technical languages is therefore directly linked to the revival and growth of all national languages.

On this note, we have gone one step further in our collaborative efforts. To build interoperable solutions applicable to real-world problems, we partnered with local open source software evangelist, Dwayne Bailey of, to incorporate the Creole machine translation support from Bing into’s Virtaal tool.

This simple step made it possible to translate anything from disaster management software to documents, press releases, blogs and other content in a tool specifically designed for human translators. This tool can play a real role for global government agencies and NGOs in international disaster-relief efforts, where language presents a barrier to effective aid.

So, in deference to the ‘mother languages’ of our deep-tech readers, we also pay our respects to greater interoperability – the ability of different systems to talk to each other – on this special day.

Finally, I’m proud to share that our isiZulu version of the Digital Literacy Curriculum will in May 2011 join the stable of 35 globally translated DLC’s currently in global circulation, allowing isiZulu users to not only see the software in their home language, but also to learn in their mother tongue the essential skills to compute with confidence, including guidelines on how to use the Internet, send e-mails and prepare a résumé.

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