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Tech tale of a language activist

Language is fundamental to human connection and communication, but remains a barrier, writes GLENN STEIN, founder of Aweza language initiative.

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As a privileged South African, I had the opportunity to spend my gap year in Argentina as a Rotary Exchange Student. Becoming fluent in Spanish opened a whole new universe of possibilities for me and continues to enrich my life to this day. But it wasn’t the actual learning of Spanish that made me come to appreciate language, rather the extent to which I suffered in my first four months, before I had any meaningful grasp of the language..

The constant day to day struggle, from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep, just to understand and be understood. That period was one of the most difficult of my entire life and I came extremely close to calling it quits and coming home to Cape Town on multiple occasions. 

But thanks to the strong support structure I had there (caring host families and a Rotary Councilor — who barely spoke English), as well as an incredibly supportive mother who made this whole experience possible for me, I found the personal resilience to push through. And I’m glad I did. Despite experiencing these struggles daily, I was still grounded in the context of privilege, safety, and security. The majority of those around the world and in South Africa who experience similar such struggles on a day to day basis are not.

Upon my return to South Africa in 2009, still fresh from this experience, I was for the first time incredibly aware of how the difficulties I faced as a foreigner in Argentina, were a daily reality for millions of South Africans who weren’t meaningfully exposed to English growing up. 

Consider what it must be like as a high school student from the Eastern Cape coming to Cape Town in the hopes of receiving a better education. Regardless of how smart they are, the language barrier will more often than not be the reason that they struggle and in many cases fall behind or fail. 

Or consider a pregnant woman visiting a clinic and not being able to understand the basic, but crucial, questions the healthcare practitioner is asking them. In such commonplace cases, misdiagnosis occurs far too often and in some cases a security guard (often a male) is brought in to act as an interpreter which is completely undignified for the patient, leading to them losing faith and trust in the public health system.

Such issues plague socio-economic development in South Africa, yet not enough is done to resolve it.

In 2013, after years of obsessing over these realities, I decided that I would dedicate my life to language activism. I embarked on a journey to leverage myskills and experiences in the world of digital product engineering, to address these issues. This journey led me to found Aweza, a tech-based initiative that would go on to build a family of mobile apps and websites geared towards democratising access to education and healthcare services for those who don’t speak English as a first language.

Most notably (and closest to my heart), I recently began the pilot of our flagship project in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, AwezaMed. 

AwezaMed is a mobile app that addresses communication and language barriers between medical professionals and patients in South Africa. The app allows medical professionals to speak to patients in their mother tongue, using speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis. The current focus is on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and is at the end of its first year of a two-and-a-half-year pilot. 

The feedback thus far has been incredibly encouraging. Doctors say that it allows them to feel like they can speak their patients’ language and build stronger trust between them, as well as improving their ability to diagnosis more accurately. 

The journey to this point has been incredibly difficult, to say the least, but the feedback has made it worthwhile. It has invigorated me to keep going and explore gearing the app towards disaster relief. AwezaMed has been entirely self-funded up to this point, because I genuinely believe in the project and the impact it is already having and can have in future. I’m now hoping to find donors and collaborators to help with its expansion.

But here’s the thing: we don’t all have to dedicate years of our lives building a language startup, to be a language activist. In fact, all one needs to do is embrace learning a language as a way of better connecting with the people around us for whom English is not their mother-tongue.  

Unfortunately, I cannot yet claim to be a fluent or even intermediate isiXhosa speaker. But equally, I cannot understate the difference and impact that learning just a few key greetings and phrases has had for me. It’s very obvious to me that if every white South African made the effort to learn a few phrases in an indigenous South African language, and got over the fear of sounding like a fool initially, South Africa would be a much better place.

*Glenn Stein is the founder and creator of AwezaMed, a mobile app that addresses communication and language barriers between medical professionals and patients in South Africa.

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Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets

Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds

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Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.

South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.

Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds. 

The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact

The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users. 

These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant. 

Other key findings in the report include: 

  • Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person. 
  • Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school. 
  • Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides. 
    • People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services. 
    •  There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education. 
    •  Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information. 

These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report. 

Read the full report at https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/08/22/in-emerging-economies-smartphone-and-social-media-users-have-broader-social-networks.

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Nokia to be first with Android 10

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Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range. 

“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”

HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.

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