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A Yoruba Text-to-Speech App Is Being Brought to Life Through This New Tech Initiative

We talk to Kola Tubosun of Yorubaname.com about their plan to create a Siri-like application that speaks Yoruba.

I'd never admit this to my parents, but I blame them for the fact that I barely speak Yoruba (if you're reading this, mom and dad, know that I still love you). When aunts and uncles complain about how Yoruba is in danger of becoming extinct, I wonder why, then, didn't their generation try harder to pass the language down to us.


Really, it's not all their fault. But while we can't go back in time and change things, Yoruba isn't necessarily doomed. New technology is giving us the tools to keep our heritage alive.

This is the task that the good folks over at Yorubaname.com have taken on with their Yoruba speech-to-text initiative. Their immediate goal is to create a Siri-like application that will service millions of Yoruba-speaking people in Nigeria and elsewhere but, ultimately, their creation will help ensure the language's longevity. Besides, a Yoruba Siri—maybe we'd call her Simi instead— is bound to have a lot of personality.

I got a chance to speak with the website's curator, Kola Tubosun. He spoke about the group's plans to execute the software, offsetting "Western-centrism" in the tech industry and empowering others through technology. Read our conversation below and find out how you can get involved in brining the app to life.

 

For those who don’t know much about speech synthesis, can you elaborate on it some more and tell us how it’ll be utilized for the Yoruba text-to-speech application?

Speech synthesis is the process of creating human speech using software and audio segments. It’s called text-to-speech because the end product needs written text to put into action. Like those bibles that read the words to you, or like those GPS systems that talk, or even these Word applications that can read to you what you have typed, the system picks out already written text and converts it to synthetic audio. It is created, usually, by a process of training the computer to string along segments of audio into comprehensible speech. Watch this video to see it in action.

What we’re trying to create for Yoruba is similar, and the uses of the application are many. For instance, most artificial intelligence softwares use spoken language as means of activating them. Siri, on the iPhone, for instance, can be spoken to and “she” speaks back. That voice is a manufactured voice. But because it can respond to commands and take commands, it is useful in many other ways. Blind people, for instance, will be able to operate their phones if they can just talk to it and tell it what they want. You can use it at ATMs to help people who don't speak English, etc.

Why is it so important that we have this software in Yoruba in particular?

Well, Yoruba has over 30 million speakers. That is already a huge population that can benefit from this kind of innovation. Many of those 30 million do not speak English at all, which means that they are shut out of a number of things involving technology. If a market woman can use an ATM in her local language, I think that empowers her. If she can speak to her phone in Yoruba and it does what she wants, that's a leap forward.

But more importantly, African languages have been left out, for too long in global conversations in technology and that has always bothered me. Siri exists in Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian, three languages which, combined and multiplied by two, still aren’t as widely spoken as Yoruba, yet there is Siri in those languages. Why? Because we don’t care?

So, I’m working on Yoruba because that’s the language I speak and on which I have competence as a linguist to create anything. My overarching aim, however, is to show that more can be done for any African language, and more should be done. One of the ways to keep a language from being endangered is not only to speak it to our children, but also to have them capable of adapting to changing times, in this case with technology.

Can you speak more about the issue of “anglonormativity” in the tech world? How has it affected your experience while trying to build this software?

I used the word in this essay to refer to the accepted convention that everything must cater first (and sometimes primarily) to the English-speaking world. But then I realized that it’s not so much Anglonormativity as it is Euronormativity or anything-but-Africa-normativity. Nigeria has 170 million people and has its own version of English which is spoken by almost everyone. Yet, the only type of English you see on Siri or Google are British, Australian, and American. For some reason, we just regularly seem to be invisible, low on the priority.

Now for this I blame not just the people who create this products/applications, but to African tech stakeholders who haven’t held the big companies to a higher standard, and who haven’t demanded more of them. In any case, if we don’t build applications like this that cater to our own languages, then we shouldn’t complain that no one cares and no one takes us seriously.

Is it your hope that text-to-speech software will expand to include other African languages as well? How do you think developers can make this happen?

Oh, sure! We’re open to collaborations.

Can you tell us more about your fundraising initiative and how people can get involved?

We are trying to raise $4000 to create this TTS-Yoruba application. You can donate to us here. No amount is too small. But we are also interested in partnering with anyone with other capabilities that can be useful either in creating this particular application, or numerous others that serve the African language experience. Grants? Sponsorships? Investments? Yes! Send us an email at project@yorubaname.com

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Still from "Kasala!"

Meet The Nigerian New Wave Director Behind the Film 'Kasala!'

One of Naija cinema's new wave, Ema Edosio talks about what it took to film her exciting new film in the streets of Lagos.

Ema Edosio is the director of "Kasala", a comedy set in present day Lagos and centers on the lives of four young men who go on a joyride to a party in a Honda Accord one of them has taken from his boss Taju without permission. Their evening is ruined when one of them crashes Taju's Honda breaking the windscreen and denting the car's body. With just four hours before Taju returns home, all four boys hustle around Lagos to raise money for the car repair.

Taju, who is a struggling butcher, is faced with a big problem of his own: his debtor has just given him an ultimatum to pay back money he's long owed. Bitter and frustrated, Taju's retribution will be double-fold, if he returns home to find his Honda is damaged. The four friends do not need more another reason to expect the worse from Taju if they're not able to fix his Honda before gets home in the next four hours.

"Kasala" is a vivid portrayal of contemporary Lagos and a riotous combination of physical comedy, inventive turns of phrases combined with fluid camera work and committed performances from some of the young and bright African acting talents.

Written by Temi Sodipo and directed by Ema Edosio—who is also the cinematographer and editor—"Kasala" was chosen for the closing gala of the 2018 edition of Film Africa in London this November, out of a total of 39 films from 15 countries.

Edosio flew into London for the film's UK premier at the Rich Mix cinema to a largely pan-African crowd who lapped up the rollicking comedy. Ahead of her trip to the UK, Okay Africa spoke to Edosio about her debut feature, the joys and challenges of shooting on location in Lagos and the rise of Nigeria's so called "Naija New Wave" cinema.

Photo courtesy of Ema Edosio


The fast pace and energy in Kasala is constant all through the film. Was this a deliberate injection or did it come as a result of the writing?

I worked as a video journalist for the BBC and I would go into the streets of Lagos to film, and I would see everything that made Lagos what it is: the traffic, the smell, the dirt, the vibe, the energy, the people. And I wanted to make a story that is authentic and that is the reason why I decided to make Kasala this way.

All the four friends and main characters jell naturally it would seem. How did you get them to work well together?

When I conceived of the film, I knew that I didn't want to work with any "known" faces. I knew that I wanted unknown actors. So I put out an audition call and these boys worked into the room and I told them to read together. And immediately it was like magic.

Why do you think they're largely unknown to the majority of Nigerian movie watching audience?

I think one of the reasons is there's not a lot of movies written about young people. Most of the scripts are for a certain kind of male character: the superhero who goes to save the damsel in distress, and the hunk and a lot of roles are not written for these amazing actors and that's why they're largely unknown.

Tomiwa Tegbe who plays "Effiong" is a good comic actor and has been in "On The Real (Ebony Life TV)" and "Shuga (MTV)". What does Kasala bring out in Tomiwa Tegbe that these other directors and film material that do not?

The thing that made Tomiwa Tegbe and the rest stand out in Kasala is that I gave them freedom to act and I wasn't micromanaging them. They became very comfortable in order to do their best to the film.

The cast as a whole is largely new and young with Jide Kosoko easily the most experienced. Why did you cast him for the role and not yet another "unknown" face?

The reason is I couldn't afford to hire known faces to work in the film and I honestly didn't have the budget. I [also] wanted to bring in a sense of familiarity and that is why I got Jide Kosoko. Even though they're guys are unknown, and they're are fantastic "here is someone you know who is in this movie playing with these amazing actors" which is why I worked with Jide Kosoko.

The different locations in the film are those of back corners, mechanic garages, meat market, communal flats most of which have the red and brown of rust and decay gives the cinematography a visual harmony. How much attention did you give to finding the right locations?

I think I made Kasala with a vengeance. I've had the privilege to work with Ebonylife tv which was beautiful but Kasala kept pulling me in: the people I met in the streets, the things I'd done on the streets of Lagos, the visual aesthetic kept pulling and I decided to make that. I wanted to see Lagos, I wanted to see barbwires. I wanted to see gutters, I wanted to see the people. I knew that the location was a character on its own. And I wanted to be able to find the right location that would be able to represent that boys and the lives they live in Lagos. I'm forever grateful for the people there who let us film there.

Your camera adopts the often frenetic pace of the film and is rarely still for long. Why this visual approach?

I'm very influenced by Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And I would always say to myself that "these characters in their films can be Nigerians". I think that the camera should be fluid, breathe, move with the audience showing us "oh yeah this is a wide, oh yeah this is a close up". My influence by these directors was what I put into Kasala. And this is what made the film dynamic.

Are there any interesting, unplanned events during shooting which you could share with our readers?

Shooting in Lagos is one of the hardest thing to do. You have these agberos [louts] who come to you and literally want to take your equipment. I went with a very small crew and I'm very petite and they would see me and say "who is this small girl? She doesn't have money. Leave her alone, let her shoot". I started bringing them into the film to act and it was very beautiful seeing them react to it. One of the most interesting things is the children in the estates [on location] who act in the film, the joy and the playfulness. In some ways we brought back some joy and some fun into the neighbourhood.


Still from "Kasala!"

Did you worry much about what may be lost to foreign audiences who may not be clued up the pidgin English and "Nigerianisms" used in the film?

You can't come to Lagos and make a film about the slum in English. I felt like the pidgin English was as important as the location. My mind was not about where the foreign audience would accept it or whatever. My mind was "how do I make a film that is authentic to Nigeria? How do I make a film that would show of Lagos?" It would do no justice to use English.

Who are the other key players in Nigeria's "nu wave" film and tv you would like to highlight?

When you talk about new wave key players you're talking about Abba Makama whose film "Green White Green" inspired me to make "Kasala". CJ SeriObasi, ImoEmoren, Jade Sholat Siberi, Kemi Adetiba. So many new directors are springing out nollywood. And they're new directors making amazing stuff. I'm really really excited about the future.

How did you raise the funding needed to make "Kasala"?

When I wanted to make Kasala, it was not the kind of story people would fund. I decided in order to bring this story to live, to use the skills I'd gained over the years—to produce, direct, shoot and edit. Not because I wanted to be in control, because I didn't have the budget. That is the sport of new director coming in now. We're fighting against all odds and it is now beginning to be clear that it's way beyond nollywood. Kasala has been to over 20 international festivals and counting. And there an audience for our films, there's an audience for our voices.

What are you expectations for it at the festival?

I really don't know what to expect. I just hope that they love the film. For the Nigerians in the diaspora,I hope that it brings back memories of Lagos. For black people I hope it gives them a sense of how we are back home to help them connect with us as Africans. For the foreign audience I hope that they see a Nigeria of passion, of community, of tenacity, of brotherhood of love.

"Kasala" will be released worldwide on December 7th

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Indomie: Unpacking a Nigerian Tradition

What does Nigeria's way of preparing this beloved brand of instant noodles say about the country as a whole?

Before I came to Lagos in September to begin a collaborative performance project, I imagined all the ways the place would challenge all I had read and heard about it, and all the ways it might remind me of my home, Trinidad and Tobago. Of all the kernels of similarities I've encountered so far, Indomie is perhaps the most intriguing.

Indomie, a brand of instant noodles originating in Indonesia, has become the household name for all instant ramen noodles in Nigeria.

As a child, I would make Top Ramen, but ours was far less intentionally adorned. I had never seen anyone add anything but Golden Ray. I would try to be fancy with my own and add eggs, but they never quite attained Naruto ramen standards.

Indomie was my first meal in Nigeria. I had arrived in Lagos about two hours earlier. In those two hours I had seen something of the character of the city. In the midst of the clouds of dust and engine exhaust fumes I saw a woman almost fall out the car she was getting into, I saw men sitting atop a truck, like wrinkles in the night sky fabric, I saw selling, so much selling and buying and haggling. It seemed to me that everything was happening here.

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Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' Is Coming Out On Limited Edition 8-Track

"Zombie" and "Mr. Follow Follow" are available in the nostalgic 8-track cartridge.

"Zombie," Fela Kuti's 1976 protest anthem and scathing attack on the Nigerian military, is getting an 8-track re-release.

Knitting Factory Records, Kalakuta Sunrise and Partisan Records have made 300 limited editions copies of Zombie/Mr. Follow Follow which you can pre-order now ahead of its December 7 release.

Fela Kuti's classic song uses zombies as a metaphor for soldiers mindlessly following orders. The song is thought to have triggered the Nigerian government's horrific assault on the Kalakuta Republic, in which the compound burned to the ground, Fela was brutally beaten and his mother, Nigerian feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was murdered.

You can pre-order Zombie/Mister Follow Follow on 8-track now and read more about each song from Mabinuori Kayode Idowu's text accompanying the release below.

Purchase Fela Kuti's Zombie/Mr Follow Follow on 8-Track

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