Building African Culture with a New Language App – The Vanderbilt Hustler

Sophomore Wenitte Apiou and his peers design a language app suitable for various African languages.

With the rise of advanced technologies, learning new languages ​​is easier than ever. Over the years, many apps have been created to introduce a wide selection of languages ​​to avid learners.

But what happens when the languages ​​of your culture are constantly ignored? How can you learn languages ​​with disproportionately fewer resources available?

Vanderbilt’s sophomore Wenitte Apiou found herself in that exact position. Originally from the West African country of Burkina Faso, later raised in Ohio, Apiou’s multicultural upbringing exposed him to many languages. Growing up, he was fluent in French and English at home, but had a strong desire to learn his family’s native languages, such as Mooré and Kassem.

“I wanted to increase my skills in the native languages ​​of my country. Even though French is my mother tongue, it is not my language. It is the language of the colonizer imposed on the society from which I come,” said Apiou. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people in a demographic similar to mine have the same desire to learn their parents’ native language, but they just haven’t had the opportunity to learn it.”

Apiou said many African immigrants and their families are often forced to prioritize English when arriving here. Over time, new generations lose aspects of the culture of their ancestors and are unable to learn their mother tongue due to the lack of accurate educational resources. Apiou wanted to be able to communicate with his extended family, so he set to work trying to find a solution to this problem.

As a double major in electrical engineering and math with a background in coding, Apiou’s interests inspired him to create an African language learning app called Mandla. The app’s name is derived from the Xhosa and Zulu word for power, “Amandla”, which was used as a rallying cry against apartheid.

The official Mandla states that the aim of the project is to “preserve and promote African cultures through language, [communities] thinkers, dreamers and doers everywhere.

With the support of his collaborative team, including fellow sophomore Vanderbilt Delanyo Mensah, Apiou was able to launch Mandla. Financial support from donors helped fund the technology used to design the app as well as the hiring of native speakers who could contribute to the database. The team felt it was important to include authentic pronunciations and spellings to create a conducive learning experience. After language advice, they put together a list of common English words and phrases which were then translated by native speakers for each language. Currently, 15 languages ​​are supported by the app, the most popular being Yoruba, Igbo and Twi.

The app is currently designed to help English-speaking users learn one or more of the 15 African languages ​​on offer, but the app promises to adapt to serve those with other native languages ​​in the future. Once the desired language is chosen, you are asked to give a reason why you want to choose the new language, presumably to best suit individual user needs. Cultural immersion, school/work, travel, and friends/family are all options, with an additional “other” option.

Next, you are asked about your level of experience – are you a first-time learner or do you have some familiarity with the language? Either option takes you through a basic introductory lesson that uses visual aids to help you pick up new vocabulary. For example, a photo of someone scratching their head asks you to then select the word Amharic (language I chose) for the head. There is also a voiceover feature to help with pronunciation.

Many of the app’s early adopters were Vanderbilt students. Many have given positive feedback on the app saying they hope the language selection will continue to grow, which is one of the team’s long-term goals for the app.

After testing the app ourselves, we were impressed with the software, which is comparable to leading language apps like Duolingo. Although there are occasional technical issues, Apiou aims to improve the app. The aim is to include at least one major language from each African country. Other improvement plans include the introduction of an accurate spoken translation model similar to Google Translate, a crowdsourced option that allows speakers to add additional words, conversation prompts, and custom vocabulary reviews.

“While we’re building this, we’ve come across a lot of people who want to make something similar but for a different subset,” Apiou said. “I think we spoke to someone who said he wanted to do a similar project for different languages ​​spoken in India besides Hindi. We have also been contacted by a group of people in Turkey who wanted to do the same for the languages ​​spoken in that region.

Additionally, Apiou said Mandla’s team is interested in potentially sharing the app’s technology with those who want to create digital assets but have no coding experience. This translation technology could help generate accessible educational resources for thousands of low-resource languages ​​around the world. Despite the vast array of language apps already available, many of them don’t include the major non-Western languages ​​spoken by billions of people, with some even prioritizing fictional languages ​​from fantasy series. Such projects can create a network of ideas that values ​​cultural diversity and representation for all.

And that’s only the beginning. Apiou said he sees himself integrating cultural education into his future career and values ​​contributing his knowledge to his community.

“I’m interested in building solutions for my community,” Apiou said. “I’m very proud to be black, I’m very proud to be African and I can’t imagine a life where I don’t use what I learn in school to benefit the communities I care about. .”

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