South Africa speaking

There’s an article in the latest MIT Technology Review on South Africa’s effort to kick-start a multilingual technology industry from scratch. The idea is to address the combined problem of radical multilinguality (11 official languages), extensive illiteracy (which makes speech more useful than text as a medium in basic education, healthcare, the administration etc.), low penetration of IT infrastruture, and lack of interest among large IT suppliers (at 46 million people, too small a market for decent ROI).

The instrument being used is the Local Language Speech Technology Initiative, which emerged from the year 2000 Strategic Plan on human language technologies, built around partnerships with local and foreign R&D expertise. Read about the strategic vision for South African speech technology here.

Just this month the first downloads of text to speech software have become available in Kiswahili, isiZulu, Hindi (yes, an Indian language) and Ibibio (actually a Nigerian language). The idea is to stimulate developers to embed these text to speech applications in phone and other platforms, using a FOSS (Free or Open Source) approach modeled on that now used in India and Nepal. The key target: enable the local developer community to scale up and deliver the products in areas of the world where foreign big business would find investment too risky. This is a huge challenge, but South Africa’s efforts might well offer a useful best practice example of what can be achieved with a fully-fledged FOSS agenda.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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