African Missing Languages in the Digital World

Map of Africa Photo by James Wiseman on Unsplash

Digitalization has made the world more connected; content generated through social network platforms can be accessed worldwide in real time. Despite this milestone in the civilization of humankind, Africa remains highly excluded. Digital infrastructure is primarily presented in non-African languages, excluding millions who have not had privileged access to formal education to learn a second language. In this piece, I discuss the limitation of language exclusion in the digital and education systems and options that technology players can adopt to address this problem. I discuss how the lack of language inclusivity constrains education, particularly in the sciences. It also threatens the continued existence of the African mother tongues as a central element of identity and diminishes creativity and literature. Technology companies have a role to play and their inclusion of African languages has viable business benefits. It will increase market uptake of their tools and platform in the African market, which is projected to grow further by 2050. This will promote education, innovation, literature, and the decolonization of knowledge.

African first languages matter in education and information transmission

The difficulties of not learning in mother tongues are well documented. Overall in Africa, there is a correlation between poor educational outcomes and the use of a colonial language as a medium of instruction.[1] Linguistic failures yield academic failures and cause dropouts.[2] Obanya, an Emeritus Professor of Language Education maintains that the underutilization of the first language makes the education system in Africa greatly fail majority of learners. As Probyn argues, learning in a second language is often associated with low school achievement due to learning difficulties and cultural confusion.[3] Whilst, first languages are proven to enhance learning as demonstrated in a study by Alidou, Boly and Brock-Utne.[4]

Public discourse has also linked the discarding of African indigenous languages in Learning Centers as an impediment to innovation, creativity, and development of local content. Beyond being a means of information transmission, first languages serve as the basis on which culture is built.[5] They are tools for communication, education, social integration, development, identity, cultural history, traditions, and memory at the early stages of an individual’s development.[6]They also create a unique understanding of the world based on the conceptual framework of a given society. In turn, this enables the rest of the world to understand such a society, benefiting all through knowledge and information exchange, including literature, which is always a strong part of any society’s value system. Languages define the uniqueness of the prose or poetry of any country. In most cases, care must be taken to ensure that this peculiarity is not lost in translation. Digital language inclusion has the potential to promote African literature in its originality, fostering the acceptance of formerly suppressed and stereotyped African creatives including poetry, prose, music, and films.

First languages are particularly important in making science relatable. Raman, an Indian Physicist famously said, “we must teach science in the mother tongue. Otherwise, science will become a highbrow activity. It will not be an activity in which all people can participate.” Indeed, in Africa, student uptake of science subjects is low. Oyoo asserts that some African pupils find science subjects difficult as they are taught in unfamiliar and confusing terms of a foreign language.[7] Teaching science in a first language, a child’s natural medium of thought, can create a better understanding. It can also boost trust in science. This can all be made possible and faster by digital language inclusion.

Colonial legacies and exclusion of African languages in education and digital systems

After Asia, Africa is the richest continent linguistically, home to a third (1000–2000) of the world’s languages.[8] But, Africa still grapples with language colonial legacies. The colonial revolution thrived on promoting Western culture at the expense of African ones. African languages were suppressed in academia and formal settings in favor of colonial languages, mainly English and French. In his book, Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o presents the poignant picture of language colonization through a careful examination of how English was forcefully imposed on a colonized Kenya.[9] Following the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952, the colonial government in Kenya made English “the language, and all other languages had to bow before it in deference.” The dominance of the English language was sealed by punishing and humiliating anyone found speaking their mother tongue and applauding anyone fluent in English. Today, this colonial mindset endures. Some institutions punish students who speak their mother tongue, often demeaned as vernacular slang. Such education policies foster a colonial mindset and endanger the future of African languages.

The seeds of language colonization today are the administering of formal education in colonial languages and the adoption of the same languages, mainly English and French as official national languages. The irony however is that Western universities continuously and unfairly subject Anglophone African-educated students to expensive English language tests, as a requirement for admission. Although English has given many a common language that is well-integrated globally, a large percentage of Africans communicate, sometimes exclusively, in their mother tongues. Yet the assumption in the development of digital systems today is that Africa’s language needs are inherently being met because of the very nature of the continent’s colonial history. Whether education or digital, systems that incessantly ignore colonial dynamics between English speakers of the West and those elsewhere perpetually disfavor Africans.

The digital language inclusion will address the threat to African mother tongues

The lack of African languages in the digital world threatens their existence. Their inclusion will partly address one of the antique sins of colonization as it serves as the best recourse to restore language justice; reduce the trend of marginalization, promote inclusivity, foster knowledge decolonization, and reduce the threat to their survival.[10] It will also promote formal and informal education, particularly helping those who do not speak English to exploit services provided by applications such as Google translate and Duolingo to understand information that is presented in other languages.

The inclusion of first languages will promote the usage of digital services in Africa

Following decolonial campaigns, African policymakers are increasingly recognizing the essential role of local languages in facilitating knowledge transmission. In February, the Africa Union adopted Swahili as an official language.[11] Such steps by policymakers to promote African languages can be advanced by technology, particularly software developers, telecommunications, and computer manufacturers through their digital inclusion. This will accommodate millions who are currently excluded from the digital revolution and empower them to fully exploit digital services.

During policy debates, lack of digital skills has become a cliché reason justifying why most Africans are not using digital services. Such rationality overlooks the impact language exclusion has in limiting the use of digital technologies. Localizing digital systems through language inclusion will help disenfranchised minority groups, including some Africans, to comprehend what digital tools offer, promoting their usage for e-commerce, e-banking, e-health, e-learning, et cetera.

Some companies are making progress towards localizing systems. Google offers indigenous language services such as Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Swahili, Yoruba, and Zulu. Google’s highly welcomed African first-language inclusion initiatives improve understanding of information, boost connectivity, and increase internet usage by previously excluded individuals.[12] Efforts to improve translation accuracy are ongoing and additional languages spoken by millions of people still need to be included, especially in the non-Swahili-speaking African countries that also have no national local languages.

Digital language inclusion promotes technology-enabled learning, especially knowledge sharing and in turn boosts skills and improves productivity. Addressing language barriers can promote formal and informal virtual education of excluded Africans, enabling them to access previously inaccessible content. Such localized digital education systems improve usage, as can be seen with current data, in which localization has increased traffic by about 70%.[13]

Africa’s growth potential and population increase also provide a strong business case

There are benefits for technology companies to include African languages. Africa has strong growth potential and its population is projected to increase from 1.2 billion to 2.2 billion by 2050, making it a large digital market.[14] Despite fears about the extinction of local languages in favor of English, Africans still consider their mother languages a core part of their culture and life. These languages dominate everyday life. They are used in informal education, domestic trade, religious and social events and political engagement. Technology companies that consider them will tap into a previously ignored market, as Africans will identify with their services, and utilize them significantly. This is true for both new startups and established big tech.

How the digital revolution can be made more inclusive of African first languages

Tech companies must invest in the inclusivity of African languages. This can be done through partnerships with national and international actors including African governments, education institutions, and relevant international development players such as UNESCO, which is already working on protecting indigenous languages from extinction. African governments and American institutions such as Stanford University and Harvard University invest in educational capacity of African languages. Technology companies can tap into these networks to digitalize languages.

The tech companies can also use local language private innovative expertise who are already building digital or non-digital local language dictionaries. Most African education systems have schools that continue to build local language skills and expertise and are passionate about ensuring language survival through technology innovations. Technology companies could tap into such budding experts including African software engineers to utilize local talent and incorporate local languages into their model.

Promoting African language inclusivity necessitates that tech companies acquire a diverse and inclusive team while supporting homegrown solutions that aim at promoting African digital language and local content inclusivity in a global system. Homegrown initiatives meet local context demands and supporting them can enhance innovations including local language led electronic platforms.


Ensuring that Africans effectively benefit from the digital revolution requires going beyond the official national foreign languages to include local languages. In this 2022–2032 International Decade of Indigenous Languages, the digital era is challenged to either continue to subdue native African languages or to give them room to flourish.[15] Technology companies must adopt a more progressive attitude towards local identities by incorporating their languages. This will not only boost the use of technology products and services but will also protect and preserve the marginalized African languages.

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[1] Jack, J. (2021). The push for mother-tongue teaching in Africa Lessons in local — rather than colonial — languages deliver results, educationalists say. Financial Times. June 2021.

[2] Obanya, (2004). Learning In, With, and From the First Language

[3] Probyn, M. (2006). Language and learning science in South Africa. Language and education, 20(5), 391–414.

[4] Alidou, H., Boly, A., Brock-Utne, B., Diallo, Y. S., Heugh, K., & Wolff, H. E. (2006). Optimizing learning and education in Africa-the language factor: A stock-taking research on mother tongue and bilingual education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[5] Rovira, L. C. (2008). The relationship between language and identity. The use of the home language as a human right of the immigrant. REMHU-Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana, 16(31), 63–81.

[6] UNESCO. Why Indigenous Languages?

[7] Oyoo, S.O. (2015) Why language is so important in science teaching. World Economic Forum. June 2015.

[8] Harvard Universit., Introduction to African Languages.

[9] Wa Thiong’o, N. (1992). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers.

[10]Griffiths, J. (2019). The internet threatened to speed up the death of endangered languages. Could it save them instead? CNN Business. October 2019.

[11] Shimanyula, A.W. (2022). African Union adopts Swahili as official working language. Anadolu Agency.. February 2022

[12] Turovsky, B. (2016). Ten years of Google Translate.

[13] Bhana, Y. Localization Increases Conversion by an Average of 70%. Toppan Digital Language.

[14] Suzuki, E. (2019). World’s population will continue to grow and will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. World Bank Blogs. World Bank. July 2019.

[15] UNESCO: Welcome to the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.