A “cultural evangelist” is how Adebayo Adegbembo sometimes likes to describe himself. It’s a fitting description of his work: he develops language learning apps for African languages. His work combines technology, teaching and a passion for promoting African languages and cultures on the internet.
Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Adebayo’s mother language is Yoruba, which is spoken by about 30-million people in the world. His interest in an online approach to language learning and language preservation was piqued four years ago, while he was exploring ways to use technology to encourage his niece and other neighbouring children to learn their mother tongue.
Adegbembo founded Genii Games, where he and his team started developing language-learning apps and animated videos for the Yoruba language as well as other Nigerian and African languages.
According to Adebayo, technology has become an optimal tool to make language learning “fun, appealing and engaging”.
“Technology offers the best form of creative approach to preserving native languages. It aids the process of documentation, of collaboration between language experts, and offers a wide array of distribution media. With technology, it’s easier to contextualise the languages to reach different audiences categorised by age and level of understanding of the languages.”
One of the language apps, Igbo 101, is designed for children and takes the form of an adventure quest. Users can advance through the game by mastering different language levels while achieving milestones with the ultimate goal of acquiring the gift of Amamiihe, which means knowledge in Igbo.
The app is available on Android and iOS. Other language learning apps are available for Yoruba and Hausa.
Creating language learning apps requires the skills of a diverse team of programmers, illustrators, voice-over artists, sound engineers and language instructors to assemble all of the elements.
The language experts especially are essential as they must master the tonal elements of many Nigerian languages, which in addition have a variety of different dialects. This process has been documented and published in a blog post titled “What does it take to build an app?” on
Highlighting stories from Nigeria and across Africa is part of what Adebayo considers his work. To encourage the next generation of digital storytellers, he has started conducting workshops with primary schoolchildren throughout the continent. In March last year, he led eight workshops with schools across Nigeria, which focused on creating digital content for children.
“It’s a workshop where we walk kids through the process of creating simple stories using technology tools,” he said. “Together, we come up with ideas for stories, then write out the script, draw, colour, record the narration and piece it all together into an app or video. Our goal is to demystify the content creation process. Furthermore, our larger goal is to inspire these kids to take ownership of their narratives.”
Based on the success of these workshops, he led a similar activity in Johannesburg, in conjunction with iAfrikan, Who Are We Africa and Macroscopia Labs, which was hosted by Jozihub as a part of Youth Day 2016 festivities. Twenty-six children from two primary schools in Soweto took part in all aspects of creating a 90-second video about cooking umngqusho (samp and beans).
In addition to coming up with the story idea, the children illustrated the characters and provided the voices for them. Watch the result by searching for “How to Cook umngqusho” on YouTube.
Although these apps and digital stories have helped to promote Nigerian languages online, not all children can get access to this content.
In rural parts of Africa, where fewer people own internet-enabled smartphones, children’s access to digital learning aids is especially afffected.
But Adebayo says this is changing.
“The growing availability of cheap smartphones will ease this situation over time and I think we’re beginning to see it happen.” — globalvoices.org