Kiswahili at the center of digital advancement, Artificial Intelligence

Bernard Oginga: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 September 2023:

The World Kiswahili Language Day is being celebrated for the second time after what enthusiasts termed as a successful first commemoration in 2022.  The theme for this year “Unleashing Kiswahili’s Potential in the Digital Era” couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

This second anniversary of the World Kiswahili Language Day­— popular among speakers of the language by the acronym MASIKIDU ( Maadhimisho ya Siku ya Kiswahili Duniani) comes at a time when the digital space is on the brink of yet another revolution. Technology companies are moving to implement Large Language Models (LLMs) in generative Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As that happens, Kiswahili has scored another first by being the only sub-Saharan language among the 40 that Google plans to launch its generative AI – Bard.

Already other Google services and products, including Gmail, Docs, Drive and the popular mobile operating system, Android, are available in Kiswahili. Google Lens can also translate into Kiswahili.

Other internet-based platforms such as Airbnb, Uber, WhatsApp, Spotify, among others, support Kiswahili.

Another generative AI, ChatGPT, that launched in November 2022 also provides responses in Kiswahili.

Other than generative AI, Kiswahili is also making strides in voice-enabled technology.

In recognition that Kiswahili is spoken across wide geographical regions with different accents and vocabulary, Mozilla Foundation through its Common Voices (Sauti ya Jamii) initiative has been collecting Kiswahili voice datasets from volunteers with an aim of countering AI biases that often hinder voice-enabled technology use.

“I want to be understood when I speak,” says Kathleen Simiyu, an AI researcher at Mozilla Foundation,  in a tweet.

The initiative aims to bridge more than accent and vocabulary barriers.

“For some communities, even if their language is supported, they might not be understood as AI training data regularly under-represents gender-diverse communities, people of colour, and those with marginalized or non-native accents,” says Mozilla Foundation.

While it can be argued that companies are leveraging on Kiswahili for their genuine interests ­— to expand or acquire new markets ­— it is also apparent that Kiswahili speakers are benefiting from technology.

Apart from being able to use technology in their own language, Kiswahili speakers are able to tell their experiences in their own language and likeness, as they please. Those in the diaspora have never felt closer to their roots or found it easier to explain to their children and communities how people live in their areas of extraction.

During  the most recent international conference of the Global Council for the Promotion of Kiswahili (CHAUKIDU- Chama cha Ukuzaji wa Kiswahili Duniani ) in Washington DC, Prof. Leornard Muaka who heads the Kiswahili programme at Howard University said it would be prudent for countries in East African to nurture and promote Kiswahili as more and more learners take interest to study the language.

“We have not just people whose parents were born in East Africa learning the language, but also learners from other parts of Africa and beyond. The future is  bright because drivers of Kiswahili language are receiving collaborative support from other stakeholders, including governments.

“The growth of the language, its usefulness and its functionality are being realized. Nothing can stop Kiswahili,” added Prof. Muaka who is also the chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Howard University in Washington DC.

Prof. Muaka’s assertions are confirmed by two enthusiastic American students. ­

“I think Kiswahili is taking over Africa, that is a good and also a bad thing. It is good because it can replace foreign languages such as English and French, but it would be bad if children who go to school learn Kiswahili and not learn any other local languages,” says Clark Murphy – who has learned Kiswahili for three years and is now fluent.

Alexa Baker, who is studying International Relations and Kiswahili at Howard University said the Kiswahili conference was an important opportunity for students of the language outside Africa to interact with speakers of the language.

“It is also very important for learners to travel to countries where the language is spoken so that they can practice the language and culture,” said Ms. Baker.

Call to make Kiswahili an official language for the UN

During the Kiswahili conference at Howard University, there were calls by diplomats and other participants for the United Nations to make Kiswahili one of its official languages.

“Kiswahili in gaining recognition by the day. Already, it is a working language of the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the East African Community (EAC), and hopefully now heading to the UN”, said Kenya’s Ambassador to the US, Lazarus Amayo.

On her part, Tanzania’s ambassador to the US, Dr. Elsie S. Kanza said: “Kiswahili is already used by the UN as a means of communication in radio through UN News, but one-day, sooner rather than later, it will become an official language of the United Nations.”

As the world celebrates the second Kiswahili Day, it is evident that Kiswahili is blazing the trail for other African languages on the digital and international arena.

Prof. Muaka observes that the current efforts to make Kiswahili a unifying language for Africa should not be mistaken to mean the subjugation of other languages spoken on the content.

“I do not expect Kiswahili to be the only language spoken in Africa, I expect it to work in tandem with other local languages so that we can see the linguistic and cultural diversity of the continent,” said Prof. Muaka.

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