UCLA hosts Tigrinya Language Digital Initiatives Symposium
Tigringya in Ge'ez script over a landscape in the Tigray region. (Digital script: w:User:Ue3lman via Wikimedia Commons; public domain. Photo: Rod Waddington via Wikimedia Commons; altered.) CC BY-SA 2.0.

UCLA hosts Tigrinya Language Digital Initiatives Symposium

The four-day meeting brought together digital and computational experts from around the globe, drawing an average daily attendance of over 400 people.

By Abraham K. Adhanom, Ph.D., P.M.P.*

UCLA International Institute, July 29, 2022 — UCLA hosted a virtual Symposium on Tigrinya Language Digital Initiatives from June 16 through June 19, 2022. The four-day event was sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE), the UCLA African Studies Center and Stanford University's African and Middle Eastern Program.

Initiated by Abraham Adhanom, Ph.D., African languages instructor at UCLA International Institute, the symposium was jointly organized by Adhanom; Biniam Gebremichael, Ph.D., of the SeReT Foundation in Colorado; Professor Issayas Tesfamariam of Stanford University; and Yemane Russom, founder of Geezsoft and Phonetic Systems.


Symposium organizers Abraham Adhanom, Biniam Gebremichael, Issayas Tesfamariam
and Yemane Russom. (Photos provided by Abraham Adhanom.)

The four-day meeting brought together language and linguistics scholars, computer scientists, researchers and industry experts in NLP (natural language processing), AI (artificial intelligence), software engineering, computational linguistics and related disciplines from around the world. Presenters and attendees from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa participated in the virtual sessions, with an average of 420 people attending each day of the symposium. In addition, groups of friends and households joined many attendees in enjoying the virtual discussions.

The symposium schedule, speaker biographies and presentation videos can be found on the symposium website.

Background

Tigrinya is Eritrea's national language and one of Ethiopia's major languages, spoken primarily in the Tigray and neighboring regions. It is estimated that nearly 10 million people speak Tigrinya in Eritrea and Ethiopia, with millions of people in the Eritrean and Ethiopian diasporas across the globe interested in the language, together with its associated culture, history and related academic and social initiatives.

A member of the Semitic language family, Tigrinya is the only African language with its own alphabet (along with other Ge'ez-borne languages, such as Amharic, Tigre and Bilen). It uses a fascinating scripting system called ፊደል ("Fidel"), in which vowels are represented in strokes that are appended or deducted for the respective vowel sound. Tigrinya offers a clear and distinct reading and writing system, which means there is no such question as "How do you spell it?” in Tigrinya.

The mission of the June symposium was to bring language, technology and organizational talents together to create a professional and inclusive platform to increase Tigrinya's footprint in the digital world. The meeting sought to enable Tigrinya speakers as creators and beneficiaries of language and linguistics technologies and help them empower and transform their communities through education, research and development of their own language. The symposium was the first of many planned steps to create a larger, inclusive, equitable and impactful undertaking that expands digital offerings in Tigrinya.

Another critical objective of the symposium was to coordinate and streamline Tigrinya language-related computing, research and development projects among the experts, professionals and scholars working on them so as to share experiences and avoid redundancies.

Conference presentations and discussions

Tajendra Vir Singh, Ph.D., of UCLA IDRE, together with Andrew Apter and Harold Torrence, co-directors of the UCLA African Studies Center, gave an opening welcome on behalf of UCLA, followed by an opening greeting on behalf of Stanford University by Professor Khalil Barhoum of Stanford’s African and Middle Eastern Program.

Dr. Aida Habtezion, chief medical officer and head of worldwide safety organization at Pfizer Inc., then delivered the opening keynote address. Before joining Pfizer, Dr. Habtezion served as a practicing physician and scientist at Stanford University's School of Medicine. She is a board-certified gastroenterologist in both Canada and the United States.

At Stanford, Habtezion led a large translation research lab funded by multiple National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and foundation grants that focused on understanding disease mechanisms and identifying potential immune-based therapeutic targets for pancreatic and intestinal inflammatory diseases and their long-term complications, such as cancer.


The renowned artist, author and filmmaker Ariam Woldeab gave the closing keynote speech, in which she spoke about the critical role of technology in developing literature, storytelling and the production of books, movies and plays. Woldeab emphasized the importance of telling stories that challenge, inspire and call others to action through literature and the arts — all of which can undoubtedly be enhanced through technology.

The scope of discussions at the symposium was not limited to technology innovation, although technological creativity was evident throughout the event. Rather, discussions focused on the practical and essential social value of the research and development efforts currently underway, particularly for advancing public welfare in business, economics, health, science and many other disciplines.

The language translation models, research, services and applications presented at the symposium have the potential to enhance global business and socioeconomic interaction across the world. Most importantly, the text-to-speech and voice-to-text products, together with other services, can significantly broaden access to digital communications by people who are visually and hearing impaired.

Of note, the symposium recognized the enormous leadership and sacrifices of Yemane Russom, founder of GeezSoft and Phonetic Systems. Russom was the first to envision, design and develop Geez software systems and fonts, starting in 1981. He never gave up hope on continuously improving his software applications, despite the economic hardships he endured to maintain the systems.

Biniam Gebremichael, one of the organizers of the four-day meeting, noted that his own lifetime professional and volunteer work was inspired by Russom's response to a question posed to him nearly 30 years ago. "Why bother to spend so much time, effort and resources to design and develop Tigrinya software? Why can't we use the Latin alphabet system, which is simple enough and advanced enough for most of the world to adopt?” he was asked.

Yemane's (translated) response both inspired and shocked Biniam, as well as many others who greatly admire the expert and his lifetime achievements in software development: "We have to make technology work for us and make it adapt to our needs; not to the contrary, where we have to adapt to technology."

Russom’s presentation at the symposium, "Tigrinya Language Digitization: Past, Present and Future," gave participants an appreciation for his hard work and sacrifices and motivated many, if not most, of the scientists, software engineers, AI experts, computational linguists and others in attendance to continue to pursue their work on Tigrinya digital initiatives.


Panelists at the symposium. (Screen shots and photos provided by Abrahama Adhanom.)

Many of the topics and the related applications presented at the symposium require further scholarly research and exploration. For instance, LETAI (Listening, Enhancing, Transcribing Artificial Intelligence) product design and development work requires the extensive support of academic researchers in order to take advantage of the AI capabilities developed to date. Considering the low-resource nature of Tigrinya language digital initiatives and the research opportunities available to students and faculty at academic institutions like UCLA, partnering with the experts in university settings offers mutual benefits.

Professor Ghidewon Abay Asmerom of the Virginia Commonwealth University gave another outstanding computational linguistics presentation, "Graph Theoretic Concepts and the Fidel Writing System.” The talk was inspiring for its eloquent intersection of mathematics and linguistics, as Asmerom described how graph and geometric theories were used in the design of Tigrinya fonts and applied scientific and mathematical theories to the reading and writing systems of Tigrinya and other Ge'ez-borne languages.

Presenters and attendees alike expressed their mutual hope that the robustness and effectiveness of the Tigrinya language will be enhanced by digital technologies, which can greatly impact Tigrinya-speaking populations in Eritrea, Ethiopia and diaspora communities worldwide. Many participants concurred that conferences such as the June symposium could also positively impact future academic research and socioeconomic development.

Future plans

Conference organizers, presenters and attendees affirmed a goal of making the symposium an annual gathering where new ideas can be shared and research and development efforts find support for further enhancement and continuous improvement. Many participants extended calls and encouraged the symposium organizers, sponsoring institutions and others interested in African development initiatives to continue such conferences and to support scholars, researchers, experts and developers who do not have access to digital technology and related computing resources in places such as Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Another goal articulated at the symposium is the creation of an academic journal to publish African and East African-related research and development work that would otherwise not appear in popular academic journals. Such an endeavor would significantly help African scholars, experts and professionals continue their work, leading to additional publications and scholarly inquiry.

*Adhanom teaches Amharic and Tigrinya at UCLA. His courses are offered to all University of California campuses through the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, a cross-campus enrollment platform. In addition to language instruction, his courses integrate cultural, social and interdisciplinary experiences related to Eritrean and Ethiopian communities. Adhanom is also associate professor of management at Azusa Pacific University.

The symposium organizers thank UCLA and Stanford University for sponsoring the symposium, and the UNDP (United National Development Program) Eritrea Office for its support in facilitating internet access and resources for the presenters and participants from Eritrea. Sincere appreciation also goes to the IT services team and the staff of the UCLA International Institute for their outstanding support throughout the planning and execution of the symposium.