Q&A with Cynthia Amoaba and her work with natural language processing in Ghana

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amoaba and used with permission.

As part of our ongoing series highlighting the work of activists promoting African languages in digital spaces, we would like to feature Cynthia Amoaba (@thea_ceen) from Ghana. She is a native speaker of the Kusal language.

Through the initiative Ghana Natural Language Processing, Cynthia has strived to increase the presence of Ghanaian languages in digital spaces, from the creation of a translation app to abundant research of the languages themselves.

Rising Voices recently interviewed Cynthia by email to learn more about her work.

Rising Voices (RV): Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Cynthia Amoaba from Ghana. I have been working with Ghana Natural Language processing for the past two years as a member of the data and unsupervised method teams and also the assistant head of communication. 

RV: What is the current state of your language both online and offline?

Currently the local languages are spoken by a larger percentage of people in Ghana than the official language which is English. Most of the local languages have little to no information written on them on the Internet. There is currently offline written material on 11 local languages written for use by schools. These resources are even limited for use by students and teachers.

RV: What are your motivations for seeing your language present in digital spaces?

Recently, there has been a realization that language technologies have been leaving certain languages behind – including most African languages. Ghana NLP is an Open Source Initiative focused on Natural Language Processing (NLP) of Ghanaian Languages, and its Applications to Local Problems. We released the first ever language translation app for Ghanaian Languages based in Artificial Intelligence.  Our ultimate goal is for our tools to be applicable throughout the West African subregion and beyond.

RV: Describe some of the challenges that prevent your language from being fully utilized online

One major challenge we face is funding to enable us undertake more research on our local languages as well as other African languages in the Natural Language Processing space. 

Also, the media houses are not doing enough to support in spreading the news about the new digital solutions such as Khaya (the first translation app for Ghanaian languages). Khaya has been developed to help Ghanaians especially students, teachers and foreigners to learn, teach and to connect well with the Ghanaian Languages. Meanwhile, it would have been advertised or broadcasted on news platforms for free should it have been from a foreign organisation. The local support is nothing to write home about. 

RV: What concrete steps do you think can be taken to encourage young people to begin learning their language or keep using their language?

The Ghanaian media platforms can help in advertising the digital tools which have been created to help in the learning and teaching of Ghanaian Languages. Also the Ghana Education Service should employ digital tools and resources to help make learning our local languages attractive and less laborious. This will expose students to digital knowledge as well as drive their curiosity to know how these resources are developed. 

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