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Talk 11 languages on your phone

At last, you won’t need to know even a single word of Tshivenda or isiXhosa in order to communicate with South Africans who don’t speak English.

Thabo Olivier, a South African linguistics expert based in Bloemfontein in the Free State province, has developed a multilingual mobile phone application software to break the language barrier.

The software program, named Amba-Afrika (“speak Africa” in Tshivenda), can translate any of South Africa’s 11 official languages into another. The program is also able to translate French, Portuguese, Arabic and KiSwahili, languages common in Africa.

It has taken Olivier eight years to create Amba-Afrika, having come up with the idea in 2001. By 2004 he had developed Afrilingo, a computer version of the software, which is used in national parliament and business organisations.

“The software has been installed at parliament, at legislatures and some municipalities,” Olivier said. “Various private sector companies have also acquired the application in their endeavour to not only promote multilingualism, but also promote cultural diversity amongst their employees and improve client-customer relations using multilingualism.

“The need for mobility had … many clients [asking] for it to be deployed on a mobile handset.”

It’s easy to use

Amba-Afrika is fairly simple to operate as long as you know your way through your phone. Say you want to translate the phrase “I’m lost” to an isiZulu speaking person. You open the application on your mobile, much like you’d open your Facebook Bookmark, and type the phrase. After a few seconds a recording would say “ngilahlekile”, isiZulu for “I’m lost”, from your phone’s loudspeaker. The program is also able to construct sentences using the Ogden's Basic English, a simplified English language with just 850 words developed by Charles Kay Ogden in 1930.

“You can cross-reference from any language to any language,” Olivier said. “This allows the Zulu user to translate from Zulu to Tshivenda, for instance.

“Once the translation is reflected on screen, the correct pronunciation is played by activating the play button.”

The 300MB software has been developed on the Windows Mobile platform. Olivier is selling it through his entity Lingo Software from a cellular store in Bloemfontein using the Samsung C6625 as a downloading medium.

“The application is in excess of 300MB and thus makes wireless download extremely difficult. We thus deploy the software by embedding it on the handset before the customer buys it,” said Olivier.

The plan is to create a wide-ranging distribution platform. Olivier is currently negotiating to ensure that mobile phone users in South Africa would be able to access it from their network providers. Phones with GPRS, which is used for sending and receiving data, are able to download Amba-Afrika.

“It will be available in South Africa before the World Cup. The handset supplier I am currently in negotiations with is a global player and they are in a position to take it across the globe.”

The World Cup version

For the Fifa World Cup, Olivier is currently developing a version of Amba-Afrika that will translate the languages of the 32 nations coming to South Africa in 2010. These include Serbian, Slovenian, Slovakian, Korean, German, Italian, Greek, Danish, Japanese and Spanish.

“Would you feel safer going to a foreign country with the assurance that you can communicate in their language?” asked Olivier. “We as South Africans will also be able to capitalise on our world-famous friendliness by being able to greet our visitors in their language and communicating with them in theirs, and they in ours.”

His vision is to design a version for every country in Africa in a bid to ensure that “we are able to preserve even the smallest of languages and give these an entry into the digital domain”.

“The Zimbabwe version will include, for instance, all 18 local languages spoken in Zimbabwe, even Kunda, which is spoken by only 100 000 people.”

Olivier, who speaks six languages fluently, believes that the future of information technology in Africa “lies in the mobile handset” and he has committed himself to doing more research into developing unique mobile solutions “that also cater to the linguistic needs of all those living in our continent”.

He is working with various IT and linguistics companies in his venture, including the Cape Town-based internet development company Fusion Technologies.

“I am blessed to have developed a linguistic software application through the use of IT. I have [also] been fortunate enough to work closely with some of the great linguistic experts in Africa though,” said Olivier.

Olivier, who’s also a councillor of the African National Congress in the Mangaung Local Municipality, was named Top ICT Businessman in Africa at the ICT Achievers Awards in 2005 for creating Afrilingo.

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