Language is a fundamental organ of humanity. It is what can both bring us together and divide us, and is a lens through which we make sense of reality.
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As a privileged South African Jew, I had to privilege to spend my gap year in Argentina as a Rotary Exchange Student after matriculating from Herzlia in 2007. It was during this year that I became fluent in Spanish and for the first time in my life I was able to appreciate language in this light. Learning Spanish opened a whole new universe of possibilities for me and has left a mark on me that continues to enrich my life to this day. But it wasn’t the actual learning of Spanish that made me come to appreciate language in this light, rather it was the extent to which I suffered through the first 4 months before I had any meaningful grasp of the language, the constant day to day struggle that plagued me from the moment I woke up till I went to sleep just to understand and be understood. That period was one of the most difficult of my entire life and I came extremely close to calling it quits and coming back home to Cape Town on multiple occasions. But thanks to the strong support structure I had over there(caring host families and a Rotary Councillor who barely spoke english), as well as an incredibly supportive mother who made this who experience possible for me, I found the encouragement to pull through. And I’m glad I did.
Upon my return to South Africa in 2009, with this experienced still fresh, I was for the first time incredibly aware of how the difficulties I faced for a year as a foreigner in Argentina were a day to day reality for millions of my fellow South Africans living who’s weren’t meaningfully exposed to English growing up. Consider what it must be like as a matric student from the Eastern Cape coming to finish their metric in Cape Town in the hopes of receiving a better education, only to struggle to understand 50% of the words written in their exam questions. Regardless of how smart they are, the language barrier will more often than not be the reason that they fail. This is very commonplace. Or consider pregnant women visiting a clinic and not being able to understand the basic, but crucial, questions about her sexual health the healthcare practitioner is asking them. In such commonplace cases, misdiagnosis occurs far too often and in some cases a security guard (often a male) is brought in to act as an interpreter which is completely undignified for the patient, leading to them losing faith and trust in the public health system. Such issues plague our socio-economic development yet not enough is done to resolve it.
In 2013, after years of obsessing over these realities, I decided that I would dedicate my life to language activism and embarked on a journey to leverage my skills and experiences in the world of digital product engineering to address these issues. This journey led me to found Aweza, a tech-based initiative that would go on to build a family of mobile apps and websites geared towards democratizing access to education and healthcare services for those who don’t speak English as a first language.
Most notably (and closest to my heart), I recently began the pilot of our flagship project in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, AwezaMed. AwezaMed is a mobile app which addresses communication and language barriers between medical professionals and patients in South Africa. Specifically, it allows them to speak to patients in their mother tongue using speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis. It’s currently focused on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and is completing its first year of a 2.5 year pilot. So far feedback has been incredibly encouraging, with doctors saying that it allows them to feel like they can speak the patient’s language and build stronger trust between them, as well as improving diagnosis. The journey to get to this point has been incredibly difficult to say the least, but the feedback has made it worthwhile and invigorated me to keep going and explore gearing the app towards disaster relief.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to dedicated years of your life and all your savings building a startup to be a language activist. In fact, all you need to do is embrace language learning as a way of bringing South Africans closer together. Unfortunately, I cannot yet claim to be a fluent or even an intermediate speaker of isiXhosa. But I also can not understate the impact that learning just a few important has had for me when I’m in public spaces. It’s very obvious to me that if every white South African made the effort to learn a few phrases in another language, and got over the fear of sounding like a fool for not pronouncing them properly, South Africa would be a much better place.
Words by Glen Stein