Mobile Apps and the Fight for Language Diversity: Nigerian Edition

Nigeria"Globalisation means children are being encouraged to learn internationally spoken languages to the detriment of local dialects," asserts Euronews in a report this month on challenges and successes in African innovation.

Can globalization also work as a game changer in the efforts to preserve the world's lingustic diversity? Will it open up the doors to dedicated tech sectors outside of Silicon Valley that can contribute to this cultural fight? And, with the proliferation of mobile technology specifically, can the promotion of mobile apps work as a force for good in the language and cultural spaces that our diverse industry supports?

The answer appears to be a tentative yes, with no great dam breaking from a flood but, rather, a steady trickle of good language tech news from around the globe, including an interesting story out of Nigeria.

Elevating West African Languages

Sahara TV has a feature video interview with Adebayo Adegbembo, the founder of Genii Games and the brains behind Àsà, a range of mobile applications aimed at promoting and preserving  African culture, generally, and three Nigerian languages specifically: Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa.

Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba collectively represent some 79 million speakers worldwide, most of whom are located in the West African states of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Much of Hausa and Igbo orthography is an inheritance of the region's British colonial history and still under contest. The current Igbo alphabet, for example, was only agreed to in 1962. Yoruba is far older, with origins stretching far before its written form was developed in the 1850s, and as influenced by the region's Islamic history as its Christian one.

Genii Games' Àsà, which means "culture" in Yoruba, has developed approximately a dozen apps, all targeted at children 2 to 12 years old and the adults who want to introduce them to digitally supported language learning. The mobile apps present various aspects of African culture: languages, folktales, etiquette, cultural values, and more. They are developed for mobile phones and tablets running on Google Android, Apple iOS, and RIM Blackberry mobile platforms.

The Àsà Story

The self-proclaimed Chief Evangelist of African Culture, Adebayo Adegbembo studied engineering at the University of Lagos before launching Genii in 2012. Along with his three-man management team, Adegbembo has won the backing of groups interested in supporting entrepreneurs in Nigeria's burgeoning tech sector.

In February 2012, for example, Àsà's work on the àYoruba mobile app for Android was honored with a second-runner-up award in the Tech-In-Education Hackathon, an initiative that brought together education-minded programmers and other stakeholders for three days of brainstorming and coding. The $2,000 prize will provide for the continuing development of Àsà under the tutelage of the Co-Creation Hub and specifically for àYoruba, which focuses on teaching the vocabulary and phrases of this Nigerian language.

After this win, Adegbembo was also nominated in the innovation category for The Future Awards, what the World Bank described as "the Nobel Prize for Young Africans." And even Google noticed, mentioning the company among its list of six innovating African developers in its Google Africa Blog.

Language Diversity in the App Universe

As we reported earlier this year, there's evidence that smartphone app developers are doing their share of innovating with apps that highlight language- and culture-saving initiatives worldwide. CNN reported that out of Australia, for example, came Ma! Iwaidja, an app designed to protect an indigenous language that is currently spoken by fewer than two hundred people there. And the New Yorker recently focused on the initiative of FirstVoices, a three-year-old group whose iOS app brings the indigenous languages of both North America and Australia to the Apple universe.

As app developers like Adegbembo continue to leverage mobile technology for the promotion and preservation of their home spaces, the rest of us can celebrate a world in which, yes, English may dominate the playing field but the playground itself keeps growing and growing and growing.