Thursday, December 24, 2015

Really smart mobiles know African languages, Part 1

Support for African languages on mobile devices (cellphones, smartphones) is quietly getting better. Here's a quick look at some dimensions of that process. This is a big topic - one with many products (devices, apps) and initiatives, in the context of rapidly expanding access to mobile devices on the continent. So in this and two following posts I will simply try to highlight some aspects with the expectation of returning to the topic and the hope of feedback about accuracy and completeness.

Potential support for a language in a device has several different aspects.With English and other major international languages we have them all, and as a single package. But that's not the case with many languages, especially "less-resourced" ones. So it's helpful to begin considering different ways a device may or may not support use of a language. For simplicity one might start with three ways in which languages are supported in mobile devices:
  • fully localized interface - where the menus are in the language; we might call this the "medium of interaction"
  • input systems (where some letters of the alphabet or an entire writing system are not supported by the standard Western keyboards), which permit output in the languages
  • apps and content about African languages (dictionaries, learning apps) - what might be called "subject of interaction"
This and two following posts will look at each of these aspects in turn.
Lumia 830, chosen languages menu in Hausa

Localized interfaces

A couple of months ago I took a look at a Lumia 830 phone with menus in Hausa (pictured), noting use of the Boko orthography (not ASCIIfied). Checked back recently and the only other African languages were still Afrikaans, Arabic, and Swahili. This line of phones uses the Windows Phone mobile operating system, so presumably other mobile products using the same system have similar language interface options.*

The current version of Android - 6.0 "Marshmallow" - boasts "74+ languages." If there is a list of these, it is hard to find, but the reality might be more complicated judging by a random look at some phones running Android. Some new Samsung phones featured around a dozen language options, none from Africa; and a Samsung Galaxy S 6 edge+ had about 60 but none from Africa other than Arabic. A Blackberry PRIV phone had close 150, with some African languages included.  These higher numbers (both with Android 5.x) include multiple locales for some languages (indeed, the latest list found online was one from 2012 showing 57 "languages and locales supported by Android," but 37 languages - it included no African languages apart from Arabic for Egypt).
Blackberry/Android PRIV, part of
language selection menu

Mozilla Firefox OS has an impressive number of localization projects. However, as is the case with Android, it is hard to find a simple list of languages supported, and by what version (a set of older lists is is available on Wikipedia). The list of African language localization projects for Firefox OS among the overall list include (links are to "team" pages; for other African language teams, see below**): Afrikaans; Amharic; Arabic; Bambara; Ewe; Fulah; Hausa; Igbo; Lingala; Luganda; Malagasy; Songhay; Swahili; Tswana; Wolof; Xhosa; Yoruba; and Zulu. Unfortunately Mozilla recently pulled back on its efforts to promote Firefox OS due to concerns with quality of user experience they were offering (though a Hong Kong company subsequently indicated it will continue development of the system).

Apple's current iPhones show an incredible list of "Other languages" including 74 from Africa by my count (two views of parts of the long language selection menu below give an idea; see next posting for a list of those languages). However, when I asked about them in an Apple store, I was told these were not yet supported, although there might in some cases be third party apps offering support. On closer look with the Fula/Pulaar option, I noted that the calendar had Pulaar abbreviations for months, but that everything else was in the default - in this case, English. In other words, the "other languages" may apparently have some, but not complete, support. The only African language in the shorter list of fully-supported languages is Arabic (see specs).
iPhone 6s, shots of "Other languages" selection menu

On the whole, it seems like there is significant progress for interfaces in some major African languages on mobile devices, and potential for more. Interesting to note some less-widely spoken African languages listed in the iOS language selection - would like to know more about the thinking there. Other questions include how the volunteer driven open source model will be able to keep up let alone expand language offerings, and what level of commitment the commercial operations have over the long term.

What level of communication and collaboration is there among people working on the same language? This would be very important, I think, for long-term success of efforts in less-resourced languages, though competitive models mitigate against it.

Also, is anyone researching how these various African language interfaces are being used, and what sort of feedback there is from users?

The next post in this series will look at input systems for African languages on mobile devices.

* Noting that Windows 10 has, in addition to the 4 African languages seen on Lumia phones (links to Wikipedia articles): Amharic; Fula; Igbo; Kinyarwanda; Northern Sotho; Setswana; Tamazight (both Latin & Tifinagh); Wolof; Xhosa; Yoruba; and Zulu. Is it just a matter of time before these get to the Windows phones?
** Mozilla language teams not working on Firefox OS are (links to team pages): Acholi, Akan, Kinyarwanda; Ndebele (South); Northern Sotho; Siswati; Southern Sotho; Tsonga; and Venda. Here too, one might ask what are the possibilities of moving on to mobile localization.


Annette said...

Dear Don - this is brilliant - and just what we need for our next BAAL Language in Africa SIG Annual Meeting, 6th May 2016, in London: Technology and Media - emerging trends in Africa and the Diaspora.

May I at least print these out as a poster for the event, if you are not able to attend yourself (apologies - we are a 'self-help' group with no income, or we would invite you properly!). Meanwhile secretary Goodith White has just forwarded this mail around the SIG. We are now over 100 in African countries, UK and beyond.

Many thanks for all your work. It is very encouraging Though even pencil and paper technology is lacking for too many kids in classrooms and is still much needed, ICT is definitely making a difference, especially as people are aspiring to use it. It's not just a western concept of 'how to solve' our definitions of 'Africa problems'.

With best regards

Annette Islei

Convenor, Language in Africa SIG (British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL)

Don said...

Thank you Annette, I appreciate the feedback and interest. You of course may use any material from this blog as may fit your needs - I need to get a Creative Commons licensing statement on it to make that clear. I plan two further postings on this topic, and am about to post an unplanned extra focusing on iPhone's African language list.

I owe Goodith an email concerning the meeting and will tend to that this evening. Agreed wrt ICT - doesn't replace some basic "analog" needs, but digital technology does change the field of possibilities (ideally in a positive way for all) and sometimes offers a potential "end around" on certain problems.

All the best...