Africa’s first language Centre launched to promote indigenous languages

At last! Hard work and dedication finally paid off.

The Government-established South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) has grown out of its down feathers and is now ready to take flight as this Centre was officially launched on 7 August 2019.

SADiLaR is a platform that creates and manages digital resources and software supporting research and development in language technologies and related studies in all the 11 official languages. It is no secret that African Languages, within the South African context, are under-resourced with regard to sufficient digitisation tools to function effectively in the modern, digital world. One of the main missions of SADiLaR is to address this matter in order to provide the tools to help prepare these languages to take their rightful place in the world of language technology.

SADiLaR is part of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) programme which came about as a result of a major investment by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).   The Centre, having been in its incubation and development phase since 2016, has now reached maturity to the level where it was officially launched by the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Buti Manamela. Speaking at the launch, he said research in the humanities and social sciences had undergone a global paradigm shift over the last two decades as information and communication technologies have advanced and access to digital resources had increased.

“This has given rise to the ever-expanding interdisciplinary domain of research and development referred to as Digital Humanities,” he said, adding that SADiLaR was one of government’s responses to the fourth industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence, he said, was already calling into question many fundamental assumptions about the uniqueness of human communication, as the automation of speech and voice recognition opens up radically new options for dissociating languages from humans.

“SADiLaR will play a strategic role in empowering researchers to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the new era and we as government are proud to be associated with them,” he said.

According to Professor Attie de Lange, Director of SADiLaR, this Centre which is hosted by the North-West University, has an enabling function with a focus on all official languages of South Africa and to serve all tertiary institutions in the country.

“We regard it as our responsibility to support the research and development in the domains of language technologies and language-related studies. With our training and workshops in the use of the digital infrastructure and digital tools at national level, together with our partners comprising the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of South Africa, the University of Pretoria, the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment, and the NWU’s Centre for Text Technology (CTexT), SADiLaR aims to unlock the full spectrum of resources to create a broader digitalized footprint of South African indigenous languages. We have a very strong focus towards the training of new generation researchers and will also engage in the development of new nodes. Over the next few years, we would like to celebrate the next level of our involvement into the development of South Africa’s indigenous languages,” Professor de Lange said.

SADiLaR mainly runs two programmes:

  1. A digitisation programme, which entails the systematic creation of relevant digital text, speech and multi-modal resources related to all official languages of South Africa. The development of appropriate natural language processing software tools for research and development purposes are included as part of the digitisation programme.


  1. A Digital Humanities programme, which facilitates the building of research capacity by promoting and supporting the use of digital data and innovative methodological approaches within the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The Centre has already established an academic scholarship initiative to create awareness of the value and role of digital language resources in academic research and product development, and to foster the establishment of Digital Humanities at various tertiary academic institutions. 

SADiLaR is also honoured to be the only digital language research centre outside Europe which forms part of the European CLARIN research network as a C-Centre. CLARIN is an acronym for Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure, working in the field of archiving and processing of language-related resources in the humanities and social sciences.

According to CLARIN’s Prof Franciska de Jong, they regard SADiLaR as a valuable partner and were very excitied about the news that the South African Government has decided to invest in the Centre. “Our aim is to gather and further-develop as much digital language data as possible in order to help with the development of South Africa’s indigenous languages. We also forsee SADiLaR to take over the role of language development on the African continent and to provide the much needed infrastructure platform for researchers in Africa,” she said.

Prof Dan Kgwadi, Vice Chancellor of the NWU congratulated the partnership between SADiLaR and the Department of Science and Technology and thanked Government for their huge investment of R81 million over the next three years. “We believe that SADiLaR will have a huge impact in the lives of our fellow South Africans and we look forward to follow the Centre’s progress,” he said.