Finding the words: African translators aim to decolonize science

Martin Harvey/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom/File
Science writer Sibusiso Biyela used to watch Venus move through the night sky as a young boy in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, pictured here in 2015 during sunset.

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Africa is a land of scientific riches, from archaeological evidence of early human societies to thousands of fallen meteorites. Yet many African languages lack the vocabulary to participate in their study.

Science writer Sibusiso Biyela is trying to change that. He’s a partner and self-titled “decolonization consultant” on a project called Decolonise Science, led by the linguist collective Masakhane. The group is partnering with public research paper archive AfricArXiv to translate 180 scientific papers into six Indigenous African languages by early 2022.

Why We Wrote This

Who can participate in science? In Africa, that may hinge on what language you speak. A new effort to dismantle these barriers is underway, promising to merge Indigenous knowledge and modern science.

The work will require developing new words for languages that lack terms for “microbes,” “evolution,” or “dinosaur.” The group hopes to share their results with governments, publishers, scientists, and journalists to help encourage scientific conversation. 

The teaching of science in official government languages – often coming before students are fluent in said language – can create disconnects, says Mr. Biyela, and sends an exclusionary message about who belongs in science.

“[Children are] told that your language isn’t sufficient for understanding the universe,” he says. “And the issue with that is that if you leave your language behind, [you] leave a lot of the principles and the values of the culture that come with it.”

As a child growing up in rural South Africa, Sibusiso Biyela was surrounded by science. Specifically, he remembers seeing Venus nearly every morning and every night.

But for the longest time, Mr. Biyela, now a science writer, didn’t know he was looking at Venus. He had been taught about Earth’s planetary neighbor in school in English, but what he saw was Ikhwezi, the isiZulu name for the wandering celestial body long studied and observed by native South Africans and used to measure the passing of the year.

He was about 15 before he realized Venus and Ikhwezi were the same thing, Mr. Biyela says. “There was never that connection made [in school] in the first place. It just felt like such a betrayal that I know so many things in English that I should know in isiZulu as well.”

Why We Wrote This

Who can participate in science? In Africa, that may hinge on what language you speak. A new effort to dismantle these barriers is underway, promising to merge Indigenous knowledge and modern science.

Mr. Biyela’s story is not unique. The teaching of science in official government languages across Africa – often coming before students are fluent in said languages – can create disconnects, he says. Concepts are memorized, but sometimes without deeper understanding outside the classroom. More broadly, critics say the omission of Indigenous languages sends an exclusionary message about who belongs in science – both in Africa and abroad.

Mr. Biyela is now part of a group trying to change that. He’s a partner and self-titled “decolonization consultant” on a project called Decolonise Science, led by a team of researchers across the continent who form the linguist collective Masakhane. In August, they partnered with public research paper archive AfricArXiv to identify 180 scientific papers written in English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese. Masakhane is working on translating these papers into six Indigenous African languages by early 2022, starting with the English tranche. 

The work will require developing new words for languages that lack terms for “microbes,” “evolution,” or “dinosaur,” and the group hopes to share its results with governments, publishers, scientists, and journalists to help encourage scientific conversation in local languages. It’s also working to strengthen online translation systems.

“Most researchers learn or get their instruction in colonial languages,” says Johannsen Obanda, community manager at AfricArXiv. This creates a feedback loop, he says, where it becomes hard to discuss science in local languages, whether in primary schools, in labs, or during public health campaigns. “There are also people who hold Indigenous knowledge,” Mr. Obanda adds, often related to agriculture, biology, or, like Mr. Biyela saw each night, astronomy. “And they also deserve a space in scholarly communication.”

Courtesy of Sibusiso Biyela
Sibusiso Biyela, now based in Johannesburg, is a partner on the Decolonise Science project.

Student experience

During the wave of decolonization in the 1960s, most schools across the continent retained their colonial languages as the medium of instruction. Slowly, those barriers have been broken down, subject by subject and grade by grade, though policies and courses available can vary widely even within a country. Some, like Kenya and Senegal, are seeing early results from local-language childhood education programs that are starting to scale up from their pilot phases – but decolonizing education remains easier said than done.

“It takes a substantial amount of resources to develop the [educational] material,” says Benjamin Piper, senior director for Africa education at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. Languages that have strong oral traditions, he adds, need writing structures to be created and agreed upon – something that takes time, resources, and money.

Another problem is sheer language diversity, even within countries, Mr. Piper says. “So how do you implement an effective [local language] program in schools where the teacher doesn’t speak the language?”

Creating tools and translations won’t guarantee their widespread use. It will be up to government officials to actually implement changes to science curricula, and up to researchers, teachers, journalists, and publishers to embrace those languages and translations in writing and teaching.

Mr. Biyela doesn’t see any other option but to try. When local languages are left out of science classes, children are “told that your language isn’t sufficient for understanding the universe,” he says. “And the issue with that is that if you leave your language behind, [you] leave a lot of the principles and the values of the culture that come with it.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A middle school teacher conducts class in the Tswana language in Johannesburg in May 2008. Research shows students learn best in their mother tongue.

From “dinosaur” to isilwane sasemandulo

When Robert Plot published the first-known drawing of a dinosaur bone in 1677, his native English language didn’t have a word for such a creature. It wasn’t until 1842 that Sir Richard Owen coined the umbrella term “dinosaur,” meaning “terrible lizard.” The name spread across the continent, to dinosaure in French, dinosaurio in Spanish, and so on.

It spread to South Africa, too, via English and the Dutch-based Afrikaans language spoken by Boer settlers – but not to isiZulu. In 2018, when Mr. Biyela was writing an article for an isiZulu-language news site about the discovery of a new dinosaur species in Free State province, he took a shot at it, colorfully describing and explaining dinosaurs, which he dubbed isilwane sasemandulo, literally meaning “ancient animal.” 

South Africa’s history offers clues on how to update scientific lexicons. In the 20th century, Mr. Biyela notes, the apartheid government worked to integrate Afrikaans and science, to catch it up to speed with English, which was the dominant scientific language. Though it’s a racist injustice that the same wasn’t done for Indigenous languages, he says, it’s also proof that the merging of science can be done with isiZulu, too.

In some ways, science being stuck in European languages is out of step with other linguistic developments on the continent. In Senegal, for example, Wolof-language television news and dramas have proliferated over recent years. BBC has broadcast in Hausa and Somali since the 1950s, and added pidgin English in 2017. In West Africa, Radio France International has recently added Fulani and Mandinka programs. 

The domination of English in science writing isn’t a problem limited to Africa, either: Researchers around the world have voiced concern about the language’s hegemony in science writing, and the lack of translations available for research papers. Even for multilingual scientists, there’s a certain speed and comfortability that comes with being able to read in the researcher’s native tongue, whether it’s Dutch or Hausa. 

The African languages chosen by Masakhane translators – isiZulu, Northern Sotho, Yoruba, Hausa, Luganda, and Amharic – are intentional. They span borders and are good root languages, Mr. Biyela says, offering an easy pathway for speakers of similar dialects.

By playing a small role in helping close the gaps between colonial and local languages, Mr. Biyela can now see himself coming full circle from where he started as an inquisitive boy.

“It’s been a real epiphany,” he says. He started out feeling fortunate that he learned English quickly, and then thinking, hopelessly, that science couldn’t be decoupled from the language. “Later finding out about decolonization, and then finding out I can play a part in doing it ... I feel very inspired again for the first time in a long time.”

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