UCT apps make SA languages easier to learn

17 February 2014
<b>Gaga over LALA:</b> People from around the world are downloading Professor Jean-Paul van Belle and Dr Tessa Dowling's language app.
Gaga over LALA: People from around the world are downloading Professor Jean-Paul van Belle and Dr Tessa Dowling's language app.

Learning an African language is now as easy as switching on your mobile device, with the help of a suite of applications developed at the UCT Samsung Mobile Innovation Laboratory.

The idea for the Learn an African Language Apps (LALA) came to Professor Jean-Paul van Belle while he was attending Dr Tessa Dowling's Learn Xhosa in 45 minutes lecture at the UCT Summer School. "I was thinking up projects for our Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab, and thought a simple app would be a perfect way to get people to talk to each other.

"Part of the lab's mission is to create African apps, for Africans, by Africans," explains Van Belle, of the Department of Information Systems.

Dowling is a senior lecturer in African Languages, and her course material - which includes sound tracks of common phrases in Nguni and Sotho languages - was used in the development of the apps. She immersed herself in the Xhosa language and culture during her master's degree, when she spent time at Mqanduli, a rural town in the Eastern Cape. The insights she gained there came in handy later, when she completed her PhD on the forms and functions of Xhosa humour.

Flemish by birth, Van Belle is a linguist of note, being fluent in Afrikaans, English, Dutch, German and French. "This is not including various computer languages such as Python, BASIC, PHP, and so on, which I find a lot easier to learn," he jokes.

A prolific researcher, Van Belle used a semester-long sabbatical last year to produce more than 12 papers. Aside from a keynote address in Dubai, these papers were delivered in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Bosnia, Poland, the Philippines, Thailand, India and South Africa.

Despite an extremely busy academic schedule, he wrote the application software over the course of three weekends. "It was really fun coding. It was great to be in the flow of programming. As an academic, I don't get this opportunity much anymore," he adds.

The LALA apps are available free on the Samsung and Google Play app stores, and if the download statistics are any indicator, they appeal to people from across the world. Aside from significant local interest, users hail from as far afield as South Korea and Germany; while closer to home, downloads have been requested by users from Botswana and Namibia.

The UCT Samsung Mobile Innovation Laboratory aims to increase mobile innovation and skills development. The partners in this joint venture include UCT's Information Systems Department and the Computer Science Department, as well as the Cape IT incubator, the Bandwidth Barn.

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