Samsung mobile innovation lab hosts unique African language Apps

11 Mar 2014 - 14:30

Professor Jean-Paul Van Belle (Commerce) and Dr Tessa Dowling (Humanities) test the apps outside the Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab located on upper campus.

LALA means lie down in Zulu, which is an appropriate acronym for a suite of Learn an African Language Apps, which you can listen to on your Android device whenever it suits you - while lying down, waiting in a queue, on the Jammie shuttle or wherever, whenever.

Our lives have become so busy that to find a morsel of time in which to learn a few phrases of Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Pedi or Tswana has been impossible ... until now. The story began last year, when Dr Tessa Dowling, Senior Lecturer in African Languages in the School of Languages and Literatures ran a hugely popular "Xhosa in 45 minutes" lecture at the UCT Summer School. Tessa has a history with the Xhosa language that goes back to the 80s. "Growing up in Apartheid South Africa I was aware that there were conversations and narratives from which I was excluded, because I did not speak the language."

It was during her Master's degree that her Professor said she needed to live amongst Xhosa speakers to really learn the language and thus she spent nearly a year at Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape. Since then she has taken her students to live in the village of Cata, near Keiskammahoek, where they collect water from the river, listen to the villagers and run on the windswept hills. She did her PhD on the forms and functions of Xhosa humour and believes it was while listening to lots of jokes and funny anecdotes told in Xhosa that her language skills really improved.

Fast-forward to her open lecture at the Summer School last year. Sitting in her lecture was the Director of CITANDA, Professor Jean-Paul van Belle of the Information Systems Department in the Faculty of Commerce. He takes up the story: "I was thinking up projects for our Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab and thought this would be a perfect way to get people to talk to each other - with a simple app. This is part of the lab's mission - to create African apps, for Africans, by Africans."

As it happened, Dr. Dowling had a library of course materials including sound tracks with the most commonly used phrases. So to translate "Howzit?" you would find the following phrases: Kunjani? in Zulu and Xhosa and O kae? in Southern and Northern Sotho and O tsogile jang? In Tswana. To get the right pronunciation you are going to have to download the app! The next challenge was to write the application software, and for Professor Van Belle, this meant three weekends of work, at one stage working solidly for 14 hours until 4am. "It was really fun coding. It was great to be in the flow of programming. As an academic one does not get this opportunity much anymore." It is extraordinary that he found the time to perform the coding as he is also a highly productive researcher. During his semester-long sabbatical last year, he managed to produce 12 papers for conferences in Czech Republic, Turkey, Bosnia, Poland, Philippines, Thailand, India and a keynote in Dubai, as well as three papers in South Africa besides his 5 journal articles.

Professor Van Belle is fluent in a number of languages: including Flemish by birth, he is also fluent in Afrikaans, English, Dutch, German and French. He adds, laughingly: "This is not including various computer languages such as Python, Basic, php, etc which I find a lot easier to learn". Interestingly, the reason for his productivity, he claims, is not his linguistic ability, as he prefers the silence offered by peaceful meditation.

Downloads to cellphones and tablets have already started apace with downloads all over the world. Within a few days this was the picture of stats on downloads per country:

Xhosa Phrases: SA 53 / Belgium 2 / Namibia 2 / South Korea 1 / Zimbabwe 1 / Sweden 1 / Germany 1 / US 1 / UK 1 / Saint Kitts 1

Zulu Phrases: SA 28 / US 2 / Germany 1 / UK 1 / Italy 1 / Laos 1 / Taiwan 1 / Ghana 1 / Namibia 1

Tswana Phrases: SA 22 / Zimbabwe 1 / Botswana 1

Sotho Phrases: SA 33 / US 1 / Zimbabwe 1/ Taiwan 1

Pedi Phrases: SA 13 / Zimbabwe 1

The free apps can be downloaded to your Android phone (or Android tablet) from the Samsung app store or the Google Play app store.