AI tools open up a world of African languages

New technology is revolutionising language learning and translation, broadening education and business opportunities for hundreds of millions of African language speakers.


Image : Diego / Adobe Stock

South African events worker Zanele Mkhize struggled for years to maintain her children’s Zulu language fluency. They were born to an English father in Oxford, UK, and educated at a Church of England primary school. Annual three-week visits to Johannesburg enabled them to engage with local speakers, but their spoken proficiency waned over time, particularly during their teenage years.

Then one of her children signed up to Duolingo – a popular edtech language learning platform – after it began offering Zulu language tools last year. Now an adult, he has continued learning Zulu at his own pace, reinforcing his cultural bonds.

“I don’t think they could ever lose their ability to understand Zulu, because I spoke it to them in their early years. Yet their reading, writing and speaking was not as good, as they always spoke and studied in English growing up,” says Mkhize. “My son was really excited when Duolingo made Zulu available last year, as it’s easier to learn that way than to be arched over a textbook when you have a busy life.”

In a matter of months, Duolingo has attracted over 30,000 Zulu learners to its platform, making it the second African language offered on its app. Swahili, added five years ago, now has over 477,000 subscribers.

In more good news for African language learners, Xhosa for English speakers will be released in December this year, bolstering the offering for Duolingo’s 50m users.

Fostering linguistic diversity

Duolingo provides free access with ads. An ad-free version costs £6.49 ($8) per month for UK subscribers. In South Africa, leading local telco Vodacom enables its 45 million customers to use Duolingo for free, eliminating data charges when using the app.

The language learning platform generates revenue from advertising, subscription fees, and exam fees. It accumulated $369.5m in revenue in 2022, according to market research firm Statista – a 47% increase over the previous year. A report by Research and Markets forecasts that the online global language learning market will grow 20.3% by 2029, to reach a market size of $31.81bn.

By incorporating African languages, analysts say Duolingo fosters linguistic diversity, while expanding its subscriber base and ramping up profits.

“The historical impact of colonialism on African languages has led to a delay in the development of tools and resources for local languages,” says Vukosi Marivate, associate professor of computer science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“There is a growing demand for tools that support local languages, as populations increasingly recognise the importance of preserving their linguistic heritage. Organisations like Duolingo see the potential in developing resources for widely spoken languages such as Swahili and Zulu, making it economically viable to invest in their development. Simultaneously, people are becoming more intentional about teaching their children local languages, despite the challenges in finding resources for them.”

Creating the Zulu course on Duolingo involved tackling an array of distinct challenges. The firm’s learning specialists collaborated with course contributors from Nal’ibali, a South African literacy organisation, to devise methods for teaching unique aspects of Zulu. This partnership was crucial to deal with Zulu’s three click consonants, its fifteen noun classes, and the way that Zulu words are structured by combining smaller components.

Advertising potential

As more people speak and learn African languages, advertisers are likely to shift gears. In Africa, numerous online businesses could be losing potential customers – particularly in rural areas – who prefer using their native languages, or who find English and French interfaces on mobile devices too complex. The report Can’t Read, Won’t Buy by research firm Common Sense Advisory revealed that 40% of respondents wouldn’t make a purchase in a language other than their mother tongue.

With Africa’s population set to double by 2050, its immense market potential should attract investors and marketing professionals with a heightened awareness of the need to understand and engage with local languages, according to Mukindi Lambani, CEO of the edtech startup Ambani Africa. This firm utilises augmented reality (AR), animation, and gamification to teach young students seven African languages, while also offering access to online tutors.

“Language learning companies in Africa are diversifying their approaches, targeting early childhood development, adult learning, and corporate institutions, with an overarching goal to empower individuals to learn a variety of subjects in their native languages,” says Lambani.

Africa’s online learning platform industry is projected to reach $380m this year, according to Statista, and revenue is expected to grow 12.10% annually to 2027, encouraging a raft of market entrants.

“Despite digital under-representation of African languages, the market has room for numerous players, each playing a crucial role in laying a robust foundation for language learning and cultural appreciation. This dynamic landscape is set to revolutionise the way businesses engage with African audiences, creating a more inclusive and vibrant future,” Lambani says.

The unique approach of Ambani Africa blends physical books with AR technology, creating an immersive learning experience for children. When paired with a smartphone camera, characters are designed to leap off the pages, engaging users and guiding them through a range of interactive educational tasks.

Adding artificial intelligence

The rapid advancement of AI tools has led to Silicon Valley giants investing in African languages. In recent years, major technology companies have recognised their value, driven by the increasing demand for localised content and services. Google actively supports Natural Language Processing (NLP) – an AI platform that enables computers to understand, interpret, and generate human language research for African languages, aiming to make online content more accessible and inclusive.

Twelve African languages are available on the Google Translate app on iOS and Android, including Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, three of West Africa’s most spoken languages. The web browser firm Mozilla has recently incorporated Ghana’s Twi language into its open-source linguistic repository, Common Voice, which collects input from real-life language speakers. This initiative aims to improve speech recognition technology and to promote a broader range of local languages on the internet, challenging the dominance of European languages as the main – or sole – online communication method.

“With the emergence of grassroots AI organisations like AfricaNLP and Masakhane, this has also made it more accessible for the big tech giants to access researchers in those communities and build even better tools over time,” says Marivate.

As more people speak some of Africa’s 2,000 living languages – roughly a third of all languages spoken in the world – and efforts to preserve this rich heritage in the digital age continue, the potential for monetising these languages and related products is on the rise. Progress in AI tools, which are now capable of handling extensive datasets and enabling software to interact in different languages, has unleashed new market possibilities.

The open source movement Ghana NLP offers smartphone keyboards designed to facilitate writing in African languages. In parallel, Kenyan startup Abantu AI has created a ChatGPT3-based speech-to-text tool for language learning, customer service, and translation.

Mymanu Clik S, developed by Ghanaian-British entrepreneur Danny Manu, harnesses NLP and AI technologies to enable real-time translation through earbuds. When paired with a smartphone, these earbuds use sophisticated algorithms to process spoken languages, fostering efficient cross-lingual communication. With Yoruba and Swahili support planned for this spring, the device aims to accommodate the African continent’s expanding trade with Europe and Asia.

During the coronavirus pandemic many companies turned to AI translation tools to communicate with business partners, due to travel restrictions. “Soon, a person in Ghana or Nigeria can receive a voice note from a partner in Germany or China, and the recipient will hear it in their own language, eliminating the need for a personal translator,” says Danny Manu.

“AI and what we can now do with language is a game changer. If you want to learn any language using online tools, you should be able to do that. And if you want to have a business partner in China you should be able to get a move on and get your business done,” Manu says.

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Will McBain

Will is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist based between the UK and West Africa.