Why Tigrinya? Travis Foundation’s first language project

When the translation company Travis started collaborating with police, government ministries and aid organisations, they requested that one thing be added to their device, Tigrinya. Their first thought, “Where on Earth is Tigrinya!?”.

At a time where countless people are forced to migrate due to conflict, poverty or environmental struggle, there are many wonderful people there to help. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), report helping 100 refugees in Ethiopia relocate per day. This is just the tip of continuous efforts by people from NGOs, governmental and intergovernmental organisations all over the world. But how do they communicate?

What is Tigrinya?

Tigrinya is the language used by roughly 55% of Eritrean people and also spoken in the northern part of Ethiopia. It’s an Afro-Asiatic language from the Semitic branch and uses the Ge’ez alphabet.

Asmara, Eritrea’s Capitol

What is Eritrea and why are people migrating?

Eritrea lies in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Prolonged conflict has been damaging to the Eritrean quality of life and many people leave to avoid indefinite military conscription. UNESCO currently estimates 4,000-5,000 Eritrean people fleeing their homes every month, to Ethiopia, Sudan and beyond. There were 30,000 requests for asylum in Europe just 2015 alone and approximately 200,000 Eritrean people in Europe.

What can Travis Foundation do?

“When collaborations started, the request for Tigrinya was overwhelming so we did our research. With 8 million speakers and an unsettled political environment creating thousands of refugees every year, we realised an urgency do something.” – Brend Kouwenhoven, CEO Travis and Founder Travis Foundation

We want to support inclusive societies and create ease in the process of migration. Travis Foundation is working towards digitising Tigrinya so that it can be included in translation technology. Without a digitised language, communication from the refugee frontline to local European municipalities becomes difficult. There’s also barriers to language learning that can be changed through language digitisation.

Why hasn’t Tigrinya already been digitised?

Languages are often digitised based on commercial interest and both commercial and governmental funding in their development. Languages such as English, Chinese and Spanish receive high levels of funding and high quality digital languages are therefore available. “We believe everyone has the right to be understood. All languages should be equal and just because Tigrinya is not seen as commercially viable doesn’t mean that Tigrinya speakers should be disadvantaged.” – Nick, Founder and Executive Director Travis Foundation. Reducing inequality and overcome communication barriers created by the commercial world lie at the centre of Travis Foundation’s goals.

What will be the impact of digitising Tigrinya?

We believe that if Tigrinya can be digitised and incorporated it into technology like Travis devices, it will open countless education, employment and communication opportunities. The ease that it would create in the refugee process and the comfort that people would have speaking their native tongue is unmeasurable. “It’s both about helping people with an urgent need to communicate. Whether a refugee in an unknown environment, or to enhance chances once people have settled, for instance in education.” – Cornelis Jansen, Manager European Affairs Travis Foundation.

When someone is affected by conflict, their education is often the first thing to suffer. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported 2,500 unaccompanied and parentless children living in UNHCR refugee camps in December of 2015. “It comes back to creating understanding within processes like applying for asylum or simply negotiating a rental agreement in a new city”, Brend Kouwenhoven adds.

“Having experienced the language barrier first hand, the closest thing to my heart now is seeing Tigrigna digitised and taking part in making it happen. With the ultimate goal of going to www.translate.google.com and finding Tigrigna listed In the slot between Thai and Turkish. I have no doubt that this dream will come true with the shear dedication of the Travis Foundation team who at moment are making waves in the digital industry with excellent social impact“ – Eseyas Abraha, an Eritrean currently living and working in The Netherlands.

What are our next steps?

Travis Foundation wants to digitise language where it’s needed most and can have the most impact. We believe that digitising Tigrinya will open up opportunities in language learning, education and easier communication. We also are excited to learn more about language digitisation and apply our earnings to future language projects. From here, the hard work starts for Tigrinya with collecting a corpus, tagging, matching and creating a language with Neural Machine Translation. Want to hear more? Get in touch.

Written by Elissa Glorie: Manager International Affairs – Travis Foundation