Ugandan IT student Andrew Newkey spent years poring over English textbooks, often struggling with material that would be easier to understand in his native Luganda.
As of May, the 27-year-old was able to copy and paste his online learning materials into Alphabet Inc’s Google Translate service and read them directly in Uganda’s official language, Luganda, which is spoken by millions of people in the East African country but not taught in schools. .
“To understand something better, you have to understand it in your native language first,” said Newkey, who also finds the service convenient for surfing the Internet and social media. It’s not perfect, he says, rating it around 60% for quality and 65% for accuracy.
But this is a start. Translation and language learning giants such as Google and DuoLingo are expanding language databases available online to broaden representation and reduce bias in AI systems.
Isaac Caswell, a researcher at Google Translate, said that for speakers of minority languages, “it can feel like the tech world is ignoring you.”
Online translation “is a very important signal to show that we care about you,” he added.
Luganda is among 24 languages added to Google Translate in May, along with others from sub-Saharan Africa, India and South America.
There are now 23 African languages on the platform, which is 17% of the total.
DuoLingo, which includes eight underrepresented languages out of 40 on offer, is working to add Zulu and Xhosa, spoken by 20 million people mostly in South Africa, later this year.
Kampala resident Hussain Bharmal, originally from India, struggled to find resources to learn Luganda, and believes that instant translations on his phone will help bridge the gap.
“When you speak someone’s language, you get the keys to their heart,” said the web developer.