Masakhane MT: Decolonise Science

Many words common to science have never been written in African languages. Now, researchers from across Africa are changing that.

Researchers want to expand scientific terms in African languages including Luganda, which is spoken in East Africa. Pictured: student-teachers in Kampala.
Image: Credit: Eye Ubiquitous/Alamy

When it comes to scientific communication and education, language matters. The ability of science to be discussed in local indigenous languages not only has the ability to reach more people who do not speak English or French as a first language, but also has the ability to integrate the facts and methods of science into cultures that have been denied it in the past.

As sociology professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah put it in a 2007 report to the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, “Without literacy in the languages of the masses, science and technology cannot be culturally-owned by Africans. Africans will remain mere consumers, incapable of creating competitive goods, services and value-additions in this era of globalization.” (Prah, Kwesi Kwaa, 2007). When science becomes "foreign" or something non-African, when one has to assume another identity just to theorize and practice science, it's a subjugation of the mind - mental colonization.

Through government-funded efforts, European derived Languages such as Afrikaans, English, French, and Portuguese, have been used as vessels of science, but African indigenous languages have not been given the same treatment. Modern digital tools like machine learning offer new, low-cost opportunities for scientific terms and ideas to be communicated in African indigenous languages.

During the COVID19 pandemic, many African governments did not communicate about COVID19 in the most wide-spread languages in their country. ∀ et al (2020) demonstrated the difficulty in translating COVID19 surveys since the only data that was available to train the models was religious data. Furthermore, they noted that scientific words did not exist in the respective African languages.

Thus, we propose to build a multilingual scientific parallel corpora of African research, by translating African papers released on AfricArxiv into multiple African languages.

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  • Africa
  • Language