Igbo, the principal language of the Igbo people living in southeastern Nigeria, is a rich language with more than 20 known dialects. While it's one of Nigeria's 3 main languages, with 20+ million speakers, UNESCO classifies Igbo as an endangered language that risks possible extinction by the end of the 21st century.
UNESCO describes endangered languages as those whose speakers have disappeared or shifted to another language. For Igbo, it's the latter, and the shift is towards English — the language of opportunity and upward social mobility. Many people see speaking English as a competitive advantage because it's the international language of business, diplomacy, and technology.
While technology has contributed to many languages being endangered, it can also serve as the solution and Ijemma Onwuzulike, the founder of the Igbo API, demonstrates that. The Igbo API is the first African Language API focused on making the Igbo language accessible to the world. Nkọwa okwu, built on top of the API, is an online, open-source Igbo-English dictionary app and learning platform that allows users to search for words in Igbo and English.
With 8000+ words available on Nkọwa okwu, users get the accented word, the parts of speech, the variations, definitions, examples of the word, and a voice recording in up to 17 dialect variations. Users can also save words, suggest a word, and suggest a new dialect.
I spoke with Ijemma Onwuzulike, software engineer at Squarespace and founder of Igbo API, about what compelled her to start the project, her experience leading an open-source community, and the impact she hopes to make.
How did your journey lead you to create the Igbo API?
I was born and raised in Oakland, California, but my parents are from Nigeria. My mom and dad are both Igbo. My mom's from Enugu state, and my dad is from Imo state.
Like most kids who are part of the diaspora, growing up in California was a weird back and forth. When I'm home, I'm African before anything else, but outside, I'm whatever the world defines me as.
Growing up, I had love, consideration, and respect for my Igbo culture. We celebrated our traditions, ate our food, and dressed in our attire. But my parents decided that my sisters and I wouldn't learn the language because they thought it would confuse us and make it difficult to learn English. So growing up, we spoke English at home.
When I got to college and saw first-generation kids from other parts of the world speaking Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, I, too, had the desire to learn to communicate in my own language. At Dartmouth, there were no African languages that I could major or minor in, so I studied Japanese, graduating with a minor in Japanese language and literature and becoming semi-fluent.
That experience made me realize how easy it can be to learn a language. When I graduated, I told myself I had to apply these skills to learning Igbo. Initially, I started tinkering around with web games and mobile apps for kids. I have younger triplet siblings, so I tried to make games for them, but nothing stuck.
Then the pandemic hit. I had all this extra time, I was back home in California, and I said, I'm a professional software engineer; I have to do something. So in September, I started working on the Igbo API, and since then, it's taken off.
What is the Igbo API, and what specific opportunity inspired you to it?
The Igbo API is a low-level piece of software that allows you to make queries. You can ask the API for an Igbo word, and it will return its part of speech, definition, example sentences, audio recordings, pronunciations, and more. The Igbo API is a developer-focused tool, so only developers would be using this technology to build whatever they want.
Nkọwa okwu is the dictionary web app that's built on top of it. We created the dictionary app because it shares the word data in a more user-friendly way and allows users to help drive the platform's growth. On Nkọwa okwu, people can add suggestions to words and add example sentences using their preferred dialect
The source of inspiration was my personal desire to learn the language. In my quest to learn the foundations, I realized there were not many Igbo dictionaries online. This inspired me to find an offline dictionary and make it easily accessible for other people to use it. I found a Creative Commons open-source Igbo dictionary that was edited and published through Columbia University. I went through that dictionary and scraped the data, placed it inside the API, and opened it up to the community for free.
What made you the right person to start the Igbo API?
When I started the project, I was very concerned and hesitant because I understood the optics. I'm an American girl working on an African project. So when I showed my parents for the first time, I was prepared to be met with some hesitation as well. But the opposite happened. They didn't frame the narrative as, "this American girl is working on an African project." They saw someone who knows their culture, hasn't had the opportunity to learn the language but cares enough to put in the time to create this app for free.
That changed how I viewed myself in relation to the project because that was indeed my intention. I didn't do it for money. I wanted to preserve my culture and ensure that it thrives for generations to come. When I shared the Igbo API on Twitter for the first time, I got an outpour of support. People encouraged me, saying, you're doing a great thing and that I should keep going.
Overall, I think being American and not knowing how to speak Igbo has been an asset. It forces me to bring a level of humility to the project. I don't have a lot of definite or absolute opinions about what the language should become and enter conversations wanting to hear everyone's thoughts on how they want to expand the language. That way, I hear all facts and opinions before making a decision that will affect so many people.
So far, not a single person has had a negative attitude toward me because I'm American or made me feel like I shouldn't be doing this. They respect that I'm Igbo and recognize that I care about our culture.
The Igbo API is an open-source project. How were you able to get other developers to contribute?
The first person to help was my friend. In college, we interned at the same tech company. I reached out and shared the idea and asked if he would be open to helping me out. He loved the idea and offered to help me get set up. That was the first sign that people not only cared but were willing to put time into building the project.
I knew I couldn't rely on my friend forever because he had his own side projects, so I turned to Twitter and my Youtube channel. I began documenting everything that I was doing and making technical software engineering videos about the API. As it picked up traction, people began reaching out, asking how they could help.
Today, we have Nigerians from around the world contributing, but most of the people contributing are in Nigeria. Despite the challenges some of them face, like internet connectivity and electricity, they are consistent.
We also have non-technical volunteers. These include volunteers who are responsible for editing the content and creating audio recordings.
Why did you include audio pronunciation as a feature?
When I started learning Igbo, I was a bit overconfident. I thought I could learn how to pronounce a word by reading it. I was humbled very quickly when I went home and began saying Igbo words to my parents. Sometimes it would take like 10 minutes of them repeating the same word before I got it. When I started the Igbo API, I knew other people probably had similar troubles with pronunciation. And that being able to hear the audio repeatedly would serve them better than reading.
When I started, I didn't have much experience deploying code into production or maintaining a codebase. So when we decided to add the audio pronunciations, I wasn't sure if it would go well because I had never handled media. And there was a potential that the data could get lost. But I'm glad that we took that step forward and pushed for it because people constantly come to us and say that it's their favorite feature of the API and Nkọwa okwu.
How do you manage all the volunteers, and what advice do you have for others running open-source teams?
We have a volunteers page on the Nkọwa okwu app where we encourage anyone, technical and non-technical, to fill out our form and share what they would like to do for the community. We take everyone in; there are no requirements. Based on what the person is interested in, they'll join the appropriate Slack channel. We have one for translators, voiceover recorders, developers, designers, content writers, and so much more.
My advice for someone running an open-source team is to start small. Start with something that you can do alone. When I started the project in September 2020, I had no idea that we would grow to a community of 80+ people. If I knew that I would be doing this in a year, I think the stress and anticipation might have gotten to me, and I would not have started.
The API was initially something to show my parents. But then one thing led to another, and it kept expanding and iterating. And before you know it, you have something that many people see value in. So start with something that you can manage within your schedule and that you know you can complete. The hardest part is completing the first iteration and then after that, working on it becomes a habit.
What are some of the challenges you've faced building the Igbo API?
The biggest challenge is dedicating time to contribute consistently. Our lives get busy quickly. I make very clear from the beginning to our volunteer community that you can take a break whenever you need it, and you shouldn't feel bad for doing so. The project should not stress you out. If you can't do it, I can't guilt you into wanting to do it; that doesn't make for a positive collaborative environment.
Though this approach isn't flawless, this creates a challenge when someone with an essential piece of the project takes a break. Meeting our projected timeline for features and updates then becomes challenging. But I think that overall we've still made great progress. People have a positive image of the project, and the team enjoys working on it.
What impact is the Igbo API making?
People have come to me on Twitter, Slack, and via email saying, I use your app to double-check Igbo words and make sure I'm pronouncing things correctly, and honestly, that warms my heart. There are weeks when it's tough to push forward, so it's nice to see the slow, steady growth and hear that people see the value and use the platform.
As for the API, we haven't seen it used in anything that has gone into production. Some developers are using it locally. We track how many developer tokens are created and how many requests are made per day, and we have some activity, but we don't know what they're using it for. We're excited to see what the community creates with the API
How do you see the Igbo API evolving over the next few years?
The problem that led me to start the Igbo API was UNESCO classifying Igbo as a dying language. I saw technology as a way to make sure that the projection of extinction no longer exists and help it go in the opposite direction. We want to make sure Igbo grows as a primary language in the areas it's spoken in Nigeria.
Next year, we plan on launching a language learning platform for Igbo and other Nigerian languages, named Nkọwa okwu Learning. We've put a lot of time and effort over the past couple of months, and we look forward to sharing it with our users.
Over the next year or so, we want to use the API for NLP and machine learning. We'll have to take some time to restructure the data since the API wasn't built with that in mind, but it's a huge opportunity that can advance the language forward. But to do this, we'll need the support of the people, so we recently started accepting donations and applying for grants. Any contributions you can make are greatly appreciated.
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