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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.

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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