Levers for the Africa We Want was the theme of last month’s African Languages Week organized by the African Union (AU) to demonstrate the indispensable role of African languages in the integration and sustainable peace and development of the continent, according to Dr Lang Fàfa Dampha, executive secretary of the Union’s African Academy of African Languages.
According to Dampha, the celebration also increased awareness and appreciation of African languages by looking at pragmatic ways of empowering and rendering them relevant to the lives of Africans, noting that, “African Languages Week is also geared to taking stock on how African languages are faring in the world of global languages so as to see where we stand in our language development endeavors.”
The celebration also seeks to promote the dynamics of African world views and philosophies of life, through the empowerment and use of African languages; demonstrate the role of African languages in the integration and sustainable peace and development in Africa, and to celebrate and reflect on African languages.
Prof Wa Goro, a Kenyan academic, social critic, researcher, translator, and writer based in the UK, said language has been considered in AU’s Agenda 63 in Aspiration 5— “an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics.” This, she noted, will be key in promoting trade within Africa.
Wa Goro has served as the co-convenor of the Women’s Caucus of the African Studies Association and the deputy president of the African Literature Association. She is also a founder member of TRACALA, the Translation Caucus of the African Literature Association (ALA) and serves on the executive committee of International Association of Translation Studies.
She noted that the issue of using Kiswahili as a common language and a working language of the AU was up for discussion at the forthcoming summit, “We, in East Africa and in Kenya, know from our lived experience how vital Kiswahili is in our public and private life. Language is a currency and like money, must be managed and the instruments for doing so developed.”
The AU created the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) to encourage language diversity to serve as a factor for African integration and development by developing and promoting African languages, and providing technical support to member states for the formulation and implementation of language policies and strategies of language development and use.
The celebration also highlighted the lack of technology geared to African languages. “We are getting to the point where if a machine doesn’t understand your language it will be like it never existed,” said Vukosi Marivate, chief of data science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, in a call to action before a December virtual gathering of the world’s artificial intelligence researchers.
“Most people want to be able to interact with the rest of the information highway in their local language,” Marivate said in an interview with Associated Press. He’s a founding member of Masakhane (www.masakhane.io), a pan-African research project to improve how dozens of languages are represented in natural language processing. Marivate is also part of a coalition of African researchers who have been trying to improve machine translation tools that have, among other shortcomings, failed to properly translate online COVID-19 surveys from English into several African languages.
ACALAN launched the African Languages Week in Ouagadougou, in collaboration with the government of Burkina Faso, in July 2021, prior to last month’s military coup.