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Indigenous languages have pride of place on Wikipedia

South Africa prides itself on having 11 official languages. In contributing to the intellectualisation and modernisation of these languages, the Academy of African Languages and Science (AALS) at Unisa is working on research projects to develop high-quality digital African language resources and technologies.

Ms Nozibele Nomdebevana, Interdisciplinary Researcher on the Wikipedia project team

The AALS team, within the College of Graduate Studies, aims to support and advance African knowledge, scholarship and language diversity through language technology. AALS therefore strives to collaborate widely with entities and individuals who share the same vision. Contributing to Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia and one of the largest social media community projects in the world, is an important part of the AALS activities as we seek to expand the presence and availability of African languages in digital space.

"We want a student who is not fluent in English to go to Wikipedia, search for a concept or topic and find results in their home language," says Ms Nozibele Nomdebevana, a member of the AALS Wikipedia project team.

What is being done is not mere translation, but entails bringing information in South African indigenous languages to learners and educators. Indeed, contributing to Wikipedia can be done by editing or extending existing articles, by translating articles that are available in other language editions of Wikipedia, for example English, or by writing new articles.

Why indigenous languages are so important

Having worked on the IsiXhosa Wikipedia, Nomdebevana’s experience of collating information in rural schools in the Eastern Cape has shown that learners and educators communicate more in their mother tongue during lessons than in English. Learners only engage with English when reading textbooks, making it difficult for them to understand the given information.

She made this point during a panel discussion earlier this year at Wikimania 2018, an annual international conference, which was held in Cape Town in 2018.

Nomdebevana said it is important for children to understand information in their home language first and then explore the subject in English.

"We cannot do away with English because it is the preferred language of communication in the world of academia." She says it is essential to ensure that learners understand and are fluent in both their mother tongue and English.


Wikimania 2018, an annual international conference, where one of the objectives is to have more indigenous languages on Wikipedia

Growing the circle

Once a month, AALS facilitates a Wikipedia workshop that is open to all speakers of South African languages.

The purpose of the monthly workshops is firstly to stimulate interest in the positive role that Wikipedia can play in their professional lives, as well as for the development of their mother-tongue languages in the digital space and the positive impact on various levels (such as assisting pupils and students in accessing knowledge).

The workshops also exist for practical assistance in utilising Wikipedia to create, edit or translate articles in the language of the attendee’s choice. In the long term, we hope that continued interest in this project will lead to a positive view of multilingual content development that will translate to taking action in the form of Wikipedia development for all South African languages. The workshop schedule is available on the AALS website.

Project to be registered as a KPA

The AALS Wikipedia project is in the process of being registered as a community engagement project, which means that Unisa staff will be able to include their participation in this project as part of their community engagement activities in the near future.

"Community engagement is an essential factor in this project because Wikipedia in its nature is a community effort," says Dr Gideon Kotzé, also a member of the AALS Wikipedia project team.

AALS is eager to encourage more scholars and fluent indigenous language speakers to become involved in this interdisciplinary project. After all, strong and viable indigenous languages are an essential component of a strong and vibrant democracy where everyone’s voice counts and every community’s indigenous knowledge is valued.

By Mpho Moloele

Publish date: 2019/01/15