Advances in speech and language technologies enable tools such as voice-search, text-to-speech, speech recognition and machine translation. These are however only available for high resource languages like English, French or Chinese. Without foundational digital resources for African languages, which are considered low-resource in the digital context, these advanced tools remain out of reach. This work details the AI4D - African Language Program, a 3-part project that 1) incentivised the crowd-sourcing, collection and curation of language datasets through an online quantitative and qualitative challenge, 2) supported research fellows for a period of 3-4 months to create datasets annotated for NLP tasks, and 3) hosted competitive Machine Learning challenges on the basis of these datasets. Key outcomes of the work so far include 1) the creation of 9+ open source, African language datasets annotated for a variety of ML tasks, and 2) the creation of baseline models for these datasets through hosting of competitive ML challenges.
Research in NLP lacks geographic diversity, and the question of how NLP can be scaled to low-resourced languages has not yet been adequately solved. "Low-resourced"-ness is a complex problem going beyond data availability and reflects systemic problems in society. In this paper, we focus on the task of Machine Translation (MT), that plays a crucial role for information accessibility and communication worldwide. Despite immense improvements in MT over the past decade, MT is centered around a few high-resourced languages. As MT researchers cannot solve the problem of low-resourcedness alone, we propose participatory research as a means to involve all necessary agents required in the MT development process. We demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of participatory research with a case study on MT for African languages. Its implementation leads to a collection of novel translation datasets, MT benchmarks for over 30 languages, with human evaluations for a third of them, and enables participants without formal training to make a unique scientific contribution. Benchmarks, models, data, code, and evaluation results are released under https://github.com/masakhane-io/masakhane-mt.
As language and speech technologies become more advanced, the lack of fundamental digital resources for African languages, such as data, spell checkers and Part of Speech taggers, means that the digital divide between these languages and others keeps growing. This work details the organisation of the AI4D - African Language Dataset Challenge, an effort to incentivize the creation, organization and discovery of African language datasets through a competitive challenge. We particularly encouraged the submission of annotated datasets which can be used for training task-specific supervised machine learning models.