UKZN Launches Innovative isiZulu Language Technologies and BooksGeneral

Professor Renuka Vithal.Professor Renuka Vithal.

UKZN has launched several innovative human language technologies and isiZulu books.

Aimed at assisting isiZulu students and end users, the University’s Language Planning and Development Office launched the technologies as part of its commitment to develop isiZulu as an academic language.

The Chancellor of the University, Dr Zweli Mkhize, said the ‘promotion of indigenous languages was an important part of our liberation’.

Remarking on the importance of social cohesion in South Africa, Mkhize said language was always at the core of self-determination. ‘Language is central to our collective identity,’ he said.

He cautioned against language extinction and emphasised the importance of using language to build the economy.

ULPDO’s Dr Langa Khumalo demonstrated the various technologies on offer, including an open source isiZulu spellchecker and an isiZulu app, both freely available for use by all. Visit for more information.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, who has an academic background in conservation biology, has spent most of his life working to slow down the rates of species extinction around the world.

Van Jaarsveld places great importance on language conservation. ‘But, language extinctions are a much bigger threat. It’s happening at a faster rate than we are losing species around the world,’ he said.

Van Jaarsveld said an estimated 7 000 languages were spoken by 7 billion people around the world, with 23 of these languages being spoken by 4.5 billion people. ‘The other 6 000-and-something languages are spoken by a very small minority of people and as a consequence of that, and the spread of dominant languages - be it Mandarin, Spanish or English around the world and the squeezing of minority languages -  we are losing them at a horrific rate.’

About half of the 7 000 languages are considered to be endangered.

Van Jaarsveld emphasised the importance of developing indigenous languages. ‘We at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are committed to ensuring that isiZulu grows, not only as a spoken language, but as a technological language, as an academic language, as best we can. It’s our responsibility in KwaZulu-Natal to make sure that we look after our indigenous languages, particularly isiZulu in this context.’

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning, Professor Renuka Vithal, who is acknowledged for driving the language policy and plan at UKZN, said the University was working towards ‘promoting parity between English and isiZulu’.

Vithal said currently more than 2 000 undergraduate students were learning isiZulu at the University and over 140 had registered to do the language as a major. She said students were able to submit their research proposals and masters and doctoral theses in isiZulu.

She said that more than 40 universities around the world taught isiZulu as a language – about 24 in the United States and 12 in Europe.

Renowned lexicographer Professor Ramesh Krishnamurthy of Aston University in the United Kingdom focused on the importance of developing linguistic corpora. Krishnamurthy stressed that language was used to propose new ideas. ‘Language is how society and the world change,’ he said.

‘No child should have to think in one language and express themselves in another,’ said Krishnamurthy.                              

The technologies launched include the following:

1)      IsiZulu National Corpus – One of the biggest African language corpora in the world, with just over 20 million running words which are reflective of the language. With this resource anyone around the world has access to study isiZulu as a language in all complexities.

2)      IsiZulu Term Bank

The isiZulu Term Bank is a resource that is being developed to provide isiZulu terminology for a variety of disciplines, including anatomy, architecture, accounting, biodiversity, economics, law, nursing, and physics. The resource is a work-in-progress with other disciplines set to be added. The isiZulu term bank is also available as an open source resource on

3)      IsiZulu Spellchecker

The spellchecker is a useful resource in language editing. Using the isiZulu national corpus as a basis for training, this tool will complement the University’s effort in teaching the isiZulu modules and assist book and newspaper editors to edit isiZulu writing. The spellchecker boasts a 90 % recognition rate, and is also an open resource downloadable from the ULPDO website.

4)      Zulu Lexicon: A Mobile-Compatible Application (Android and iPhone)

 This is a mobile application of the isiZulu term Bank. It is available free, and its development is to enhance   end-user access to various multidisciplinary terminology.    

 The new technologies will be hosted and maintained by UKZN Information and Communication Systems (ICS). 


In addition, the following two isiZulu publications (both published by the UKZN Press) were launched as part of the major effort to cultivate isiZulu as an academic language:

1)      A short stories volume in isiZulu which is a culmination of a literature competition

The short stories were compiled by both budding and experienced isiZulu writers. The stories reflect on the creative experiences of Zulu people.

2)  An English-isiZulu architecture glossary with Illustrations

With this book the Discipline of Architecture can now be taught in IsiZulu. The University Language Planning and Development Office (ULPDO) are working to a target of fully capacitating isiZulu as a medium of instruction in the academic programme by 2035. It is envisioned that students will then for example have a choice of what language their exam script will be written in, either isiZulu or English.

The development of the technologies and books was made possible through the support of various stakeholders such as the Department of Arts and Culture, UKZN Legislature, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), eThekwini Municipality, universities in KwaZulu-Natal, Shuter and Shooter Publishers, UKZN Press, and with support from various print and broadcast media.

Musical interludes at the launch were provided by UKZN’s Head of Music, Professor Chats Devroop and Ms Thulile Nzama.

Mr Paul Nzimande was the programme director.

Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer and Sejal Desai