App tackles South Africa’s language barrier one phrase at a time

“I don’t think I have solved the problem. I think I have taken steps in the right direction.”

Glenn Stein, founder of Aweza

Glenn Stein, founder of Aweza

Glenn Stein is the 25-year-old entrepreneur behind Aweza, a free multilingual app for Android and iOS that translates phrases in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The app currently contains about 400 common phrases in the context of a number of situations (such as at the fuel station) which can be translated into a selected South African language.

It makes use of crowd-sourced audio where users can contribute to the pronunciation of these phrases and get ranked by the quality of their addition. Users can play back the highest rated pronunciation of a phrase, to either learn it themselves or communicate with others.

Bridging the language problem

Stein describes Aweza as his “passion project”. The idea came to him while he was studying at college and wanted to create something that would overcome the language barriers that divides South Africans.

“We have a huge divide socially even though apartheid is 20 years past. There are still issues of segregation, just from a cultural point… and I think language is an intrinsic part of culture. It is also, unfortunately, the hardest issue to tackle because to learn a language takes a lot of effort, dedication and time,” he tells How we made it in Africa.

“But my dream comes from the idea that there was some tool that could really help – and in a big way – to break down that language barrier and shrink the gap between two South Africans that come from two completely different cultures; to allow them to connect easier and facilitate this engagement… That is pretty much what we are trying to achieve with Aweza.”

Stein is also the co-founder of Speak Mobile, a company that builds apps. It is responsible for MediPhrases, another app that works similarly to Aweza, but is aimed at the medical profession. Its purpose is to help doctors communicate better with their patients across language barriers.

MediPhrases has been specifically designed to allow doctors to ask patients questions in their home language which can be answered through a universal form of communication such as yes, no, holding up fingers to indicate a specific number, or pointing to where it hurts. The app makes use of a text-to-speech synthesis and, to ensure accuracy, its medical phrases and questions have been translated by certified translators.

Entrepreneurial advice

“The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know a whole lot at all, and don’t be discouraged by that, be humbled by it. It’s a beautiful thing,” notes Stein. “The moment you stop learning is when the game is over.”

According to Stein, the internet is one of the most valuable tools an entrepreneur has and can help them to do, or build, almost anything. “I taught myself how to build a mobile app purely through the internet. It has nothing to do with how smart you are, but rather how much time you are willing to put in to acquire the knowledge, and that is really all it takes.”

He also warns aspiring tech entrepreneurs to not waste too much time trying to conceptualise the perfect product.

“Just build something, just go and freaking build it… Sometimes it is not the product that matters at all; it’s the process you underwent in getting to its realisation… Going through that process is the most insightful learning experience I have ever been through – [from] conceptualisation to execution, and launching to the market.

“It’s not all good, wonderful, fun… Things go wrong and you need those things to happen so you can learn what to do next time it happens, or when you have the next big idea which is even better than your first.”