New app makes learning SA's languages easy


New app makes learning SA's languages easy

An indigenous language learning platform created by a pair of tech start-up whizzes has won global acclaim

Senior reporter

A yearning to learn an indigenous language was the motivation behind a new digital language learning platform.
Tech start-up innovators Thomas Wrigley and Miguel da Costa have developed a globally recognised solution, U’thini ("what do you mean?" in Zulu), which connects busy professionals to mother-tongue tutors for 15-minutes chats several times a week on a social media site similar to WhatsApp.
The idea was born out of Wrigley and Da Costa’s desire to learn an indigenous language for themselves.
More than 500 South Africans are linked to 60 first-language tutors. Among them are third- and fourth-year Wits Medical School students who are subscribed to learn isiZulu.
Uthini scooped the global award for most innovative use of information and communication technology at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Telecom World 2018 in Durban last week.
“Miguel and I had wanted to be able to speak isiXhosa and isiZulu for much of our lives, but didn’t have an accessible, affordable way of doing so that worked for us. We recognised how many other people found themselves in a similar situation and how important language is in connecting with, and better understanding, the people we live with.
“We also realised that many South Africans have a rich knowledge set – their ability to speak languages other than English – from which they are currently unable to derive much economic benefit,” Wrigley explained.
Uthini was developed to add value to those learning and those teaching.
“Our tutors are typically university students who average an hour of part-time work a day and earn, on average, R1,100 a month for their work,” Wrigley said.
A beginners course in Zulu or Xhosa which consists of 12 lessons, costs R349.
During lessons, a chatbot virtual assistant sends texts and image flashcards for users to study and remember the word while voice notes are sent so they can hear how words and phrases are pronounced.
“Students have to send voice-note replies to their real, live, personal tutor so that they can practise and learn how to actually speak the language, in conversation, with a real person,” Wrigley explained.
Uthini was one of three tech start-ups initially chosen to showcase their innovations to President Cyril Ramaphosa at the United Nations flagship event in Durban, but it was later decided that only one small-to-medium enterprise would be presented.
But Uthini still managed to grab the judges’ attention by pitching “an innovative business model which seeks to empower mother-tongue speakers to again economic value from their language knowledge”.
Wrigley and Da Costa are now in discussions with several universities and the Department of Education to help roll out indigenous languages in the classroom.
“We’re planning to add several more South African languages in the near future and several international languages in the medium-term future,” Wrigley said.
Bookings may be made on their website

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