Google prizes Swahili language
Internet giant Google has recently sponsored a competition in Tanzania and Kenya offering students the chance to submit articles (either original works or translations of existing material) for possible entry on the Wikipedia website. The deadline has now passed (29 January); the entries are all in and the jury are in the process of deciding the winners.
The competition has proved to be quite popular, but it has also been met with some criticism. According to the New York Times, one finalist said that it seemed unfair to pay some people and not others and receiving payment for a service which is supposed to be free (Wikipedia) has proved divisive. The very fact that Wikipedia is free means that content is user driven, and if monetary gains are made available for uploaded material, questions have arisen as to whether its remit will change. Competition prizes are one wireless-enabled laptop and notebook, two mobile phones and “‘wearable’ Google gear”. With around 900 entries submitted, it would seem that Google has bagged itself a bargain by obtaining so much translated material for a comparatively low outlay. However, all entrants do receive a participation certificate.
But it is not only this competition which has drawn attention to Swahili, which is spoken by over 100 million people and is an official language of the African Union (AU). Recent years have seen the language enjoy increased global visibility due to a number of business and social linguistic initiatives. In 2009 the social networking site Facebook became available in Swahili in an effort to protect the language; September 2009 saw the addition of Swahili to Google Translate; and in 2010, works by world-renowned writer Chekhov will be translated into Swahili and a number of other African languages for the first time (source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
Within Africa itself, there are also a number of linguistic projects in place to promote the Swahili language and empower its speakers. Two bodies carrying out such work are Kamusi Project International (KPI) and the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN). KPI is a non-governmental organisation ‘dedicated to the creation of dictionary and learning resources for African languages’ which ‘champions linguistic research and facilitates the needs of linguistic communities’. It has created the Swahili Living Dictionary – an ongoing project relying heavily on unpaid contributors to provide linguistic data, who receive editorial acknowledgement in exchange for their knowledge. ACALAN is a pan-African organisation working towards ‘the promotion and harmonisation of languages in Africa’. It is supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and works in conjunction with the AU. ACALAN was launched in June 2006 during the Year of African Languages and its major initiatives include terminology and lexicography research projects; the Master’s and PHD programme in Applied Linguistics; African languages and cyberspace; and the Pan-African centre of Interpretation and Translation.
So, even though it was the Google competition which hit the language headlines, the Swahili language has long been going from strength to strength, both nationally and internationally, with programmes backed by government initiatives, international organisations and NGOs. When Google announced the addition of Swahili to Google Translate, it stated that this was a move reflecting ‘Google’s commitment to Africa’. The release was in English and French. A transparent and more realistic view of the long-term commitment to African language policies is offered by Mr Adama Samassekou, President/Interim Executive Secretary of the African Academy of Languages: ‘Because language transcends the individual in favour of his community, it consequently becomes our property and that of our culture. It is through language that we acquire and transmit our knowledge and our know-how which facilitate a certain domination over our environment. It stands, indeed, as the key component and the barometer of our development.’ And herein lies the true indicator of a genuine commitment to Africa and its languages.