GLOBAL tech giant Google recently added 24 new languages spoken by more than 300 million people to its Google Translate platform, and ten of the new additions are in Africa.
Google Translate is a multilingual neural machine translation service developed by Google to translate text, documents and websites from one language into another.
It offers a website interface, a mobile app for Android and iOS, and an API that helps developers build browser extensions and software applications.
10 new African languages on Google Translate
The list includes the Ashanti Twi language, which is spoken by about 11 million people in Ghana; Lingala, spoken by around 45 million people in Central Africa–mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Tigrinya, spoken by about 8 million people in Eritrea and Ethiopia; Sepedi, spoken by around 14 million people in South Africa; and Oromo, spoken by 37 million people in Ethiopia and Kenya.
The African languages of Bambara, Jeje, Krio, Luganda, and Tsonga were also added.
Victory for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department. He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done in the richness of African languages.
Today, writing and reading in African languages will be more possible with the addition of 10 languages on the Google Translate App.
Ngugi, a long-time advocate for the use of local languages, was imprisoned in 1977 for writing a play where local actors performed in Gikuyu. The simple act of speaking or writing in your mother tongue was a revolutionary gesture.
With 54 countries, Africa has a variety of languages, including some at risk due to the proliferation of other dominant groups and the influence of Western culture.
Some rare African languages are even becoming extinct along with the culture and knowledge they represent.
In the post-colonial era, African people have grown more aware of the value of their linguistic identity. But only a few are considered official at the national level, and languages imported by colonial powers still prevail.
Fortunately, African countries are claiming more of their language inheritance, and are developing language policies aiming at multilingualism to reclaim and preserve rare African languages.
Translation, understood as the transfer of meaning (of a text) from one language into another language, is crucial for the transmission of information, knowledge and social innovations.
It is a courier for the transmission of knowledge, a protector of cultural heritage, and essential to the development of a global economy.
Google to learn the languages “from scratch”
Google software engineer and researcher Isaac Caswell revealed that the company implemented, for the first time, the use of a neural model of artificial intelligence that learned the languages “from scratch.”
He explained that to implement the new languages, Google used millions of examples that were needed for a system to “understand” and be able to translate them. With the neural model, also known as machine learning model, the added languages were trained in this way. Technology then began to “understand” how languages work.
The company says it consulted representatives from several communities before releasing the new languages.
“Imagine that you are polyglot and that, based on your understanding of how languages are, you can interpret something. This is more or less how our neural network operates,” Caswell told BBC. Google, however, admits that the technology isn’t perfect, as some linguists have noted problems with the languages already available.
“For many supported languages, even the largest languages in Africa that we have supported–say like Yoruba, Igbo, the translation is not great. It will definitely get the idea across but often it will lose much of the subtlety of the language,” said Caswell.
A 100 billion word translations daily
Along with the inclusion of the 10 African languages, the new language update comes with Bhojpuri, which is spoken by as many as 50 million people in northern India, Nepal, and Fiji; Guarani, which is spoken by about 7 million people in Paraguay, as well as indigenous populations in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile; and Quechua, spoken by about 10 million indigenous people in Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia
As of June 2022, Google Translate supports 133 languages at various levels, and as of April 2016. According to Google, every day over 500 million users access the tool and make more than 100 billion word translations.
The tech giant has plans to soon add voice recognition.
Google Translate was launched in April 2006 as a statistical machine translation service,