The Alphabet that Keeps the People from Vanishing

An Interview with the Creators of ADLaM

Perpetual Aneke

Content writer at Translation Commons, Perpetual Aneke is currently enrolled in translation studies (MA) at University of Birmingham, UK. She is passionate about people’s growth, educational reforms, and traditional Igbo cuisine, in that order.

Perpetual Aneke headshot
Perpetual Aneke headshot

Perpetual Aneke

Content writer at Translation Commons, Perpetual Aneke is currently enrolled in translation studies (MA) at University of Birmingham, UK. She is passionate about people’s growth, educational reforms, and traditional Igbo cuisine, in that order.


he power of language — and the written word in particular — to sustain cultures and create economic opportunities is undeniable. For example, take ADLaM, a script developed in 1989 for the Fulani language by two young boys. Today, it has spread across several countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, thanks to the efforts of its creators and the not-for-profit organization Winden Jangen ADLaM. The name ADLaM is an acronym derived from the first four letters of the alphabet (A, D, L, M), standing for Alkule Dandayɗe Leñol Mulugol: “the alphabet that protects the peoples from vanishing.” In this interview, the creators of ADLaM provide insights on the relationship between language and global development.

Would you introduce yourselves?

A: I’m Abdoulaye Barry, and I live in Portland, Oregon. But I am originally from the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. I’ve been in the US since 2003, nearly 17 years now. I work and live here with my family. After getting a bachelor’s degree in finance, in Guinea, I moved to the US and obtained a masters’ degree in finance. Besides my main job, my brother and I work on ADLaM, the script we created about 30 years ago.

I: My name is Ibrahima. I was born and brought up in Guinea. Before moving to the US in 2007, I was studying civil engineering. Then, I moved here and obtained another degree in civil engineering.

You started working on ADLaM at ages 10 and 14, respectively. What inspired you to take up such a huge project?

A: Decades ago, people did not have telephones in Africa. If you wanted to share news or any kind of information with relatives, you had to write letters on paper and send them through someone. Your relative would then find someone to read and interpret the message for them, since most people could neither read nor write. In Guinea, the Fulanis used the Arabic script to write letters, even though they were written in Fulani language (also known as Fulfulde or Pular). However, the Arabic script was not well suited for the Fulani language because there are Fulani sounds that are not represented in the Arabic alphabet. So, even if you knew Arabic, it was difficult to understand the Fulani language written using the Arabic script.

Our dad was one of the people in our town who could decode Fulani written this way, and we learned how to do so too from a very young age. We started learning the Quran in Arabic from ages 5 or 6. At age 9, we were already reading some of those letters that our dad used to help people read. That was when we discovered a problem: every letter was written differently. Because there was no standard, everyone used different Arabic letters to represent Fulani words and sounds, according to their own individual interpretation. So, most times, readers had to guess the writer’s message.

When we asked our dad why we had no Fulani script, he told us that the Arabic script was the only alphabet we knew for writing our language. So we decided to create our own alphabet.

I’d expect you encountered some challenges along the way, considering the sheer size of the project alone. Could you talk about some of them?

A: We did not know from the onset that ADLaM was going to be such a huge project, nor were we aware of the enormity of its impact. We were just very young children who were excited at the prospect of making it easy for people to read and write letters in our own language. When we started, we did not realize that the Fulani language was not only spoken in Guinea, but in over 20 of the 54 countries in Africa. So, ultimately, we did not know the amount of work that it would take to bring ADLaM to where it is today.

First of all, creating the alphabet itself was challenging. It took us some time to figure out the needed letters, put them together to make sure we had everything, and ensure that every Fulani sound was represented.

The second challenge was getting people to embrace it. After creating the alphabet, we started to teach our sister, before proceeding to teach it at the local market — this was how it began to spread. You know, If you create a script for a language and you’re the only one who knows it, it’s really not going to be useful to the people. So, the people have to be able to learn how to use it.

I: When we started teaching people, we had to do so using textbooks. This presented a dual challenge: how to provide multiple copies of books at a time when we had no access to photocopiers or any form of computers and, on the other hand, what content to put into the books. Initially, we translated existing books from Arabic and French and made copies of them by hand. It was not until several years later, when I went to Conakry, that we started to make use of photocopiers. We wrote textbooks that engaged with the daily realities of the people: newspapers, basic health manuals, and so on. The demand for the books continued to rise and we simply could not continue writing books by hand. We realized typing would be much easier, but ADLaM was not yet encoded in any computer at the time.

A: From 2007 onward, ADLaM became supported across major digital platforms such as Microsoft Windows, Google Chrome, Android, and the like.

We certainly did not know all the obstacles in our way about 30 years ago, and we still face some technology-related challenges, but we have also made a lot of progress over the years.

How did you manage to get your people interested in learning and using the ADLaM script?

A: For centuries, the Fulani people have been in the habit of writing, but they always used the Arabic script to do so, and in a non-standardized manner. So, it was not so much of a challenge to get people to embrace ADLaM for writing, since it facilitates clarity and understanding. Also, because ADLaM originated from one of their own, the indigenous people loved it. It was easy for people to embrace it because they took pride in the fact that the script is from us; from our people and for our people. This singular fact drives the growth and spread of ADLaM around Africa, and even around the world.

Despite the predominance of colonial languages such as French and English in the region, our people appreciate ADLaM as a vehicle for the preservation of our languages. They know that if nothing is done to preserve our languages, they will eventually die off. For instance, several children in Guinea currently do not know how to count in their own languages, yet are able to do so in languages such as French. This is why it is important for us to teach them to read and write in their own language.

If a language is not being written, it will eventually disappear. There is no way around that. The only languages that will survive are those that are being written and used by people. In the case of ADLaM, we were lucky because the Fulani people were already used to writing, even if it was being done using the Arabic script.

Yes. In my country [Nigeria], for instance, you find that some young people can barely compose full sentences in their native languages without using English words or phrases.

A: You know, I often say that one of the biggest problems of Africa’s education system is that most governments have made the choice to teach their people in languages other than theirs. People say that most African countries have so many languages that it would be difficult to choose one as an official language, but I do not think so because we do not have to choose. In fact, by even using English or French as official languages, we are making a choice of promoting other languages rather than ours.

Experts have said that the best way to educate a person is in their own language. It makes no sense that a child speaks a language at home, in the market, in the neighborhood, among friends, but goes to school only to be taught in a foreign language. That child would usually end up spending so much time learning a new language instead of acquiring knowledge. This is the situation in Africa. If, on the other hand, the child were taught in the same language they are already conversant with, all he or she needs to learn is how to write that language and acquire knowledge in it. And by mastering science and technology in your language, you can make it readily accessible to everyone in the community. But, because these foreign languages are used, only a small percentage of the population can access information in these languages. We even have this notion that anyone who does not read or write in the foreign, official language of the country is illiterate.

In Guinea, we have people who have mastery of neither French nor their own indigenous language — you know, that state of linguistic in-betweenness. And this is of no use to anyone. Countries such as Switzerland have more than one official language, so the presence of multiple languages is no excuse for not teaching African languages across the continent.

I: Yes, we do not have to choose. Everyone can study in their own language. The purpose of a lingua franca is to facilitate communication among people from different language backgrounds. Africans may choose to have a lingua franca, but it should not stop people from learning in, and having a good command of, their indigenous languages. Nothing stops us from learning in our languages.

In many cases, you find that children in Africa spend so much time memorizing words and concepts in English, thinking that is knowledge. But this time could be redirected toward actual learning. And we can actually translate existing knowledge into our own languages. I mean, people have successfully revived some dead languages. For those that are not yet dead, hope is not lost. All that is needed is the willpower to do so. Billions of dollars are spent annually to promote speaking foreign languages within the region, and if only 10% of that money is used to promote indigenous languages, they would definitely survive.

A: Something else we often do not pay attention to is the fact a people’s language contains their history and culture. No word we speak is random. When you study the history of the development of the French language or any other language for that matter, you would discover that strong cultural or historical links, and if you let any word of it die, you would have lost a part of your history or culture as a people. For me, a language is like a memory card with encoded messages that you pass from generation to generation. And without your culture and history, what is your identity? What do you stand for?

Group of people

At Translation Commons, projects like the Language Digitization Initiative are aimed at supporting the language communities and helping prevent them from going into extinction. In order to revive and strengthen a language like Pular/Fulfulde, what, in your opinion, are the most important things to be done by the speakers of the language itself; professionals in the language industry; and the government or any other group of persons you think are key players in similar projects?

A: All these groups you mentioned have their respective roles to play. One of the most beneficial things the government would do for any indigenous language is to invest toward its promotion. Thus, the people would be motivated to learn them.

We are in the era of technology and everyone uses the internet, smartphones and computers. If a language would survive, it has to be present in and supported by these tools. Unfortunately, this decision lies in the hands of a few companies that own and operate these tools. This is also where the government could come in. They could petition or ask these companies to intervene or support these languages.

Most often, companies decide what language to support based on its lucrativeness for business. And that makes sense anyway. Take Nigeria, for instance, where English, as the official language, is widely spoken by the population. Why would a company want to support Igbo, Hausa, or Yoruba if the people do not even make use of it themselves? But I often tell these companies that if the languages are first made available, the people would consequently make use of them.

They often say the market in Africa is limited. Two-thirds of the Guinean population do not know how to read or write in French. If you are selling phones or computers configured in French, how do you expect them to buy or use those tools? Moreover, the “literate” one-third is not necessarily the richest or the population with the highest purchasing power; because in Guinea, or even in Africa, we know that people who have the most money are those engaged in informal business activities; the so-called uneducated ones. So, if you do not make content relevant to them, they won’t use your products. In Guinea, people mostly use their phones for two things: making or receiving calls and, sometimes, surfing Facebook. This is true even though there are so many other things they could use them for. But they cannot maximize these devices because they do not fully understand the language. This is why we need to make the developers and companies configure in our languages, since it would also improve their business profits in Africa.

Translators can help us make translations available in these languages. Native speakers would be drawn to content in their own languages. Everyone has a role to play to protect these languages from dying off. Many languages in Africa are threatened today, even though nobody talks about it.

The only surviving African languages are the major ones spoken by huge populations. But even the major ones would gradually die off because the country’s official language would eventually be the language of communication in the average African household, and by the time the kids grow up, that’s the language they would be proficient in; and after two or three generations, there might be little to no knowledge of their own indigenous languages.

Ironically, the only thing that is saving African languages right now is probably the high rate of illiteracy. When we finally succeed in getting everyone educated, and everyone is forced to speak English or French, our own languages would probably disappear.

I: It has already started. Because in Ivory Coast, for instance, I met people of Mandinka descent [one of the largest languages in West Africa] who hardly speak any word of their own language. They only speak French. Even some people from Liberia, too.

You earlier mentioned that it’s the norm in many African countries to brand people who do not know how to read or write in the foreign, official language “illiterate.” How does this affect the attitude of the people toward learning or promoting indigenous languages?

I: I think this attitude is a product of colonization. You know, if you wanted to be among the elite, you had to speak the language of the colonial masters, so it all began then. Back in the day, if you spoke your indigenous language at school, you were ridiculed or even punished for speaking an inferior language. In fact, indigenous languages were relegated to the status of patois, as though they were second-class languages. These languages would most certainly have retained full prestige if colonization did not take place. This is why I say that it is a matter of mentality.

A: To add to that, I suggest that all those who care about preserving languages can play various roles towards helping and supporting languages technologically, making them available on various platforms. The reason is this: when, for instance, I, as a Fulani-speaking Guinean, see my language on a platform on which I don’t expect to see it, it makes me respect my language even more. It is not just up to the indigenous language users to preserve their languages: the government and the big companies do have significant roles to play.

There have been quite a lot of stories told concerning the positive impact ADLaM has made so far. Which of the success stories stands out the most for you?

I: Earlier, I didn’t know that ADLaM had spread so wide. I was only aware that it had spread across Guinea, and down to Sierra Leone. In 2006, I visited Senegal and one of my friends suggested we go to a particular market. There, I found a lady teaching the Fulani language using the ADLaM script. I was surprised to discover that she was actually using one of the books I wrote. I went closer, and asked her when she learned to read and write the language, to the point that she could actually teach others. She said she had learned it several years ago. A lady in Guinea from whom she used to buy palm oil had brought the book there and taught her to read and write. She told me how useful learning to read and write in ADLaM had been to her, especially as she was not literate in French; she could thus take stock of her business affairs. I asked her if she could teach me the script. She said yes. I asked her how much I’d have to pay, and she said she would charge me nothing. I only had to purchase the book. I consequently became so motivated — I realized that the work I was doing in my room in Guinea was changing the lives of people as far as Senegal. That was the first time I encountered someone who was able to teach others the script outside Guinea. When I came to the US, I also discovered there were Gambians who had also learned how to read and write ADLaM through her — a lady I had never met in person.

ADLaM owes much of its success to the fact that it was developed by indigenous users. Do you think that would be the case for other languages?

A: That’s a tough question. I think there are big languages in Africa. There are other smaller ones that are already in the process of disappearing. For those that require urgent action, we can, at least, make their governments aware of the importance of protecting their heritage so that they can do something about it.

We have been working on ADLaM for 30 years, but some languages don’t have that time to spare. For some languages that are only spoken by two or three elders, for instance, developing a script might not work. It might be better, in such instances, to make tape recordings of those people speaking or telling stories. It is really up to the community, with the support of the government, university professors, scholars, and linguists.

By the way, the ADLaM script can be used to write a large number of African languages, and we encourage people to use the script if they so desire. It is easy to use and is readily adaptable to any African language. Other than ADLaM, there are also other scripts.

Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry in Portland

Ultimately, we need to lobby our governments to take our languages seriously, because if they don’t, there may be nothing much we can do.

The advantage we have is the fact that we own the ADLaM script, and because people are proud of it, they take initiative themselves and decide to teach the language. I do not know a single existing ADLaM center in Africa that is being sponsored by an NGO or a government entity; they’re just grassroot initiatives. People choose to learn, and send for people from other towns or countries to teach them. For example, we know someone who has travelled to Senegal, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Nigeria, and two other countries to teach ADLaM. When people hear about him, they hire him to teach people or train those who would teach others. This could be done for other languages to preserve them.

I: As my brother said, one of the problems we have in Africa is that many governments don’t care about indigenous languages. Recently, we were at the UNESCO conference in Paris, and from what we heard from large countries like Russia, it was obvious that they care about minority languages in their country. They spend billions trying to revive languages that are on the verge of disappearing. Most African governments, on the other hand, do almost nothing to preserve indigenous languages, whereas they invest heavily in promoting English, French, Arabic, and the like.

A: You know, one of my Ivorian friends who works on the ADLaM projects once told me how she started school being taught in French. Upon getting to middle school, she also had to choose to learn either German or Italian. Looking back, she wondered why she was never presented with the option of learning an African language.

I personally have no issues with learning French or German or any foreign language for that matter. My only concern is why we have to spend so much time and effort learning foreign languages without learning even one African language, not even your own indigenous language.

I: Yes, it’s also the same in Guinea. We used to be taught in French, and had to learn Arabic as a second language, and then, when we got to high school, English got added to the mix. I don’t even know why — and most of these people who go on to learn foreign languages do not even move abroad so that we can then justify the purpose for which they spend so much time learning other languages.

A: To stress the importance of learning one’s indigenous language, one of the problems we have in Africa is disunity, especially among ethnic groups. But when you speak a person’s language, you get closer to that person and even become a kindred spirit. A very practical example is the FIFA World Cup. For instance, if France were to play against Argentina, you’d realize that most Francophones in Africa would support France. You would think we wouldn’t support the French since we were colonized by them, but no. Because we speak French, watch French movies, and practice a great deal of the French culture, you find that we’d readily support France. In the same vein, we could make efforts to learn other African languages in order to get along with one another.

The importance of ADLaM is to help promote literacy in the Fulfulde language. There’s also another script that has been designed to help the Mandinka language. The government is not really supporting it, but the people are helping to promote instruction in their own language because they have their own script too.

Despite existing inequalities among languages of the world, when would you objectively say that a language community is strong?

A: For me, the strength of a language is measured by its presence online, in literature — that is, books and articles published in it — in oral communication, and in media like radio and TV. And also the extent to which it is taught in schools. If a language doesn’t have all of these, it has zero to no chance of survival. Actually, the key to helping a language survive is to make it a language of instruction in schools. If a language is being used that way, it will never die. All the other factors mentioned are merely indicators that the language is vibrant. But until we make it mandatory to learn indigenous languages in schools, we would not really be doing what we ought to do for our languages.

I: Like he said, in order for a language to survive, it has to be the language of instruction, and I think that’s where the government should come in. If a language is online — on radio or on TV, but books are not published in the language — it will end up being infiltrated with foreign words. The language might still be spoken, but not in its pure, standard form. If there are no dictionaries, if people do not read or write in the language or study it, it would eventually be used by increasingly fewer people.

The government really has a lot of work to do. Promoting a language without the support of the government is no mean feat; especially if you’re not being paid for it. You have to earn a livelihood and also work on the language alongside. Developing a language requires strong drive and a lot of courage because it is not easy.

What message would you like to send to the world?

A: Making products, content, platforms, or systems available in indigenous languages makes them more accessible to the African people, since most of them are not educated in languages like English or French. By supporting our languages and making products that are configured in our languages, you’ll be able to reach more people, thus boosting your business. Also, if we care about the world and its heritage, we need to care whether or not the disappearing languages belong to our individual tribe or race. It’s our joint heritage as humans.

I: Africans, do not be ashamed to speak your lan-guage or promote it because that’s what defines you wherever you go. It’s your heritage and identity. People in power should also do more to sustain indigenous languages.