A team of Unilorin students is trying to make your computer speak African languages

by | Apr 2, 2018

Annually, the World Mother Tongue Day is on the 21st of February. This year, the United Nations revealed that;

“Out of 7,000 languages spoken in the world, 96% are spoken by 4% of the world’s population.
Only a few hundred languages have been given a place in education systems and less than 100 are used in the digital world”

In 2012, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) warned that African languages may be on the brink of extinction as speakers are reducing.

This potential extinction of our mother tongues(s) has motivated a group of young people to take positive action

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The team from the University of Ilorin in Kwara State, Nigeria has built Linguo a web-based speech system that can read and speak Nigerian and African languages.

The 4-man team is made up of a unique mix of software engineers, data scientists, marketers and analysts; Kolawole Felix Oyerinde, Olanrewaju Doyin, Adebayo Abolaji, and Olowonirejuaro Oreoluwa.

Except for Oreoluwa who is still a final year student, the rest are all 2016 alumni of Unilorin.

Linguo is supposed to be able to read and speak 15 African languages including Yoruba and Igbo dialects.

Though it promises the conversion of text to speech for over 15 languages, a Yoruba number system from 1 to 40,000, Linguo still doesn’t function optimally; it is still largely in beta phase.

The system works by asking for an input and pronouncing it in the chosen language.

Screenshot 20180402 134626

Service portion of Linguo’s homepage.

But on the Linguo system, the voices are all the same regardless of gender preference, and accents are not representative of the languages selected.

On this, I had a chat with Felix Kolawole Oyerinde who doubles as founder and back-end developer.

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The product will be fully ready and out of beta phase after a launch sometime in May. By then, everything will be in place.

But how will Linguo work?  Will all the voices be recorded?  Felix says this won’t be completely necessary.

Especially not for the Yoruba and Igbo languages as they both use a concatenative synthesis method. Linguo has a language syllabicator that will split input into correct syllables. For example, Chukwuma will become Chu Kwu Ma. The only things that may need recording are valid syllables like ‘ba‘ and ‘zu‘.

“Syllables from Niger-Congo languages may need to be recorded too,“ Felix continues.

For appropriate accents and intonations, Linguo plans to collaborate with the language departments in Nigerian and African universities.

This collaboration will potentially help identify suitable male and female voices.

When fully functional, Linguo will have three products. An API for developers, plugin for websites and web and mobile application for users.

Linguo is not still fully functional but the team gets plenty stars for attempting to change computing as we know it in Africa.

The Linguo team is not afraid of failure, they believe it is not an option.

“Text To Speech for the English Language was recorded word for word. There’s no reason we can’t do that for African languages.”

Victor Ekwealor
Victor Ekwealor

tech. media. startups. africa. vc | Twitter: @victor_ekwealor

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