BY Wesley Diphoko 4 MINUTE READ

There’s no shortage of questions to ChatGPT about all sorts of things in the world. ,In return there’s an abundance of answers in English. The question is, can ChatGPT speak in isiZulu or other African languages?

African language speakers, especially Zulu speakers, will be happy to know that the answer to that question is YES. ChatGPT is already able to somewhat understand some African languages. The generative AI tool can accept and answer questions in isiXhosa and isiZulu. While its answers are still very poor, its ability to respond in an African language is an important development in the technology space. For a very long time African languages were always taking a back seat in terms of enabling readers to enjoy the internet in their own languages. ChatGPT however has a far better ability compared to the era of the web which saw very few websites being presented in African languages. What will it take for ChatGPT to embrace African languages?

In view of the future impact of generative AI it is imperative that such tools are able to understand other languages aswell. This is important partly because future interaction with digitally enabled tools will be through language. For now English is in the forefront partly because it has been the key language on the internet.

Since ChatGPT knows what it knows based on what it has been told by internet users, the English language input dominates for now. It does not have to be that way for the future.

African languages can also enjoy a similar interaction that is enjoyed currently through English interaction. This will require an internet input that will come in the form of African languages. In simple terms, if isiXhosa speakers would like to enjoy an interaction with ChatGPT in isiXhosa, more Xhosa input on the internet is required.

This means individuals and organisations will have to start using an African language in their interaction with the internet. The more people write in African languages the more generative AI content will improve. Organisations and businesses can also contribute in this process by developing websites and apps in African languages.

All of this effort will lead to AI that understands African languages and as a result will be able to answer in those languages.

History however tells us that it’s not enough to just expect individuals and organisations to lead in such efforts even though their contribution is useful. Institutions such as universities will have to take a leading role in finding ways that will ensure that there’s versions of African language content that can be added on generative AI. Governments will have to take a more supportive role to enable efforts that embrace African languages in the age of AI.

Failure to do so may just lead to a situation where technology advanced tools will not be able to interact and communicate in African languages.

For the very first time, there’s an opportunity to preserve African languages in the digital age. This is possible because tools like ChatGPT are essentially large language models. That means as a tool it is very good at predicting what kinds of words tend to follow others, after being trained on a huge body of text.

ChatGPT has mastered a problem that long served as a far-off dream for engineers: generating human-like language. The beauty of a tool like ChatGPT is that its ability to produce text dependent on how much training data is available for any given language.

In the past, scholars who care about languages were concerned about the preservation of African languages online. Tools like ChatGPT present a major opportunity. As machine-learning techniques improve, they will not require the vast resources, in programming time or data, traditionally thought necessary to make sure smaller languages are not overlooked online. This alone is a reason to have hope and drive processes to ensure that African languages exist in the digital age.

Academics and education experts who are concerned about the impact of generative AI should also consider its benefits to other elements of society. In this case, languages of the world are likely beneficiaries. This however will require nations to cease the moment and embrace their languages if they want to see a future with their languages. This is even more important for African languages which were faced with extinction due to the adoption of English online.

The time is now for individuals, businesses and governments in Africa to set a goal of creating content in African languages. This will have a significant impact in ensuring that future generations can chat with ChatGPT in their own languages.

Iceland is already showing the world how it can be done. The island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic, has a vibrant technology industry and booming tourism. Yet while most of its roughly 370,000 citizens speak English or another second language, its integration with the United States and Europe has put the country’s native tongue, Icelandic, at risk. Today there’s increasing worry that in a few generations, if Icelandic can’t remain the country’s default language in the face of rapid digitalization, the language might face de facto extinction. In the interest of preserving their language the country’s government maintains a Language Planning Department that coins Icelandic terms for new ideas, rather than adopting so-called “loanwords” from other languages. A computer, for instance, is a tölva (“number prophetess”). Through these efforts, the language preserves its distinctive character and remains closely connected to its Old Norse roots.

On the initiative, the country’s President, HE Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, and with the help of private industry, Iceland has partnered with OpenAI to use GPT-4 in the preservation effort of the Icelandic language—and to turn a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate.

The partnership was envisioned not only as a way to boost GPT-4’s ability to service a new corner of the world, but also as a step towards creating resources that could serve to promote the preservation of other low-resource languages.

African countries can learn a lot from this initiative in the process of preserving African languages.