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Your smartphone doesn’t have a Nigerian language? This guy is fixing that

Imagine a world where you can use your phone like normal. In Yoruba. Or Igbo. Or Kanuri.

Google just rolled out new products, and one of the most interesting of them, is the Pixel Buds. They are a pair of headphones that work with Google Assistant and can help you translate languages in real time.

It is currently available in 40 languages. None of them are Nigerian, or even Sub-Saharan. I tried to find answers, and the trail led me to Kola Tubosun.

Where technology meets language, Kola stands guard. He's a linguist, social and cultural activist. Just so you know he's not here for lip service, he went on to build Yorubaname.com, a dictionary of Yoruba names.

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This is how our chit-chat went:

Google just launched the new Pixel Buds, and as we’ve come to expect from these Silicon Valley companies, there are no local Nigerian languages. What’s the problem? And why does this have to happen every year?

I haven’t used the Pixel Buds, so I can’t say for sure, but I can almost guess that there is no African language there.

There is a reason for this cynical appraisal. Experience with past products of this nature — not just with Google — has taught us not to expect that African languages be made priority.

But to answer the question about why this is the case, I will put the blames on both sides. On the side of the giant corporations, they like to start with the really big languages that people know and use: English, French, German, etc, and then get to languages that are familiar with.

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That is why Siri exists in Swedish, which has about 7 million people, but doesn’t exist in Yorùbá which has about 30 million people. The blame for African language users comes from we not using our languages in public domains. We have telegraphed to the world that as long as products exist only in English, we are fine, and people creating those products have taken a cue from our lack of self-respect.

If we demand products that cater to our languages, we will get them. I’m trying to do even better, if we create those products, then the world will pay attention. Or at least we will no longer have to feel inferior.

I understand you’ve been working on a text-to-speech project for Yoruba. What’s that been like?

I have finished work on the TTS project. The project I initially proposed was to create an audio element to power the Dictionary of Yorùbá Names at YorubaName.com.

That is done now, with the help of a colleague. We ran a test on it a couple of weeks ago. Hear it say The Lord is my Shepherd in Yorùbá here. We noticed some glitches and we’re working on those. So, the TTS will likely debut on that dictionary. All the names there will now be pronounceable by a computer machine. What I’m working on next, however, is a larger project, a startup to create TTS, ASR (automatic speech recognition), and other language technology solutions in other African languages. The TTS Yorùbá, which can now pronounce sentences and longer texts, can be made to serve other functional roles in society, and in technology. And when we can make it work in several other lanuguages, then we better empower the African society.

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So clearly, there are plans to scale to other languages, especially widely spoken African languages?

Yes. I’m actually currently starting to read more about Igbo to see if it can be the next language. And so on.

What are the most important factors necessary to help you make this happen?

Money! Investments. The TTS Yorùbá was created with funds got through crowdfunding. There’s a limit to how much that can work for a large scale project. If a big philanthropist in a particular Nigerian or African language provides support today to create language technology solutions in his language, I’d be glad to take on the challenge. We need the big bucks and we hope to get it.

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