By: Céleste Malone
During her winter vacation in 2020, Wenitte Apiou, a second year double major student in electrical engineering and mathematics, was struck by an idea that came from her native African roots.
In Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where Apiou grew up, the national language is French. After leaving West Africa for the United States, Apiou realized that he had not had the opportunity to learn his family’s native languages, such as Mooré and Kassem.
“It’s something that has always bothered me,” Apiou said. “This makes it difficult to communicate with some members of my family who might not speak French due to not going back to school after the national language has been cleared.”
When he couldn’t find any tools to help him learn these mother tongues, his goal became clear: to provide an accessible language learning program for African languages that are often excluded from traditional platforms.
To help him with this endeavor, Apiou assembled a team that included Delanyo Mensah, a second year human and organizational development student at Vanderbilt, two students from Harvard University and one from MIT.
In search of resources to help him think about his project, Apiou turned to the Wond’ry, the Vanderbilt innovation center. After pitching his idea, he was invited to join Wond’ry’s 2021 Builder Program, which provides a step-by-step start-up guide for aspiring entrepreneurs with early-stage ideas.
Jean Bers, Assistant Professor of Engineering Management, helped Apiou and his team brainstorm strategies and ask important questions related to the project.
“Dr. Bers has helped us avoid a trap that many people fall into when trying to start businesses,” Apiou said. “Which is to fall in love with their solution to a problem, instead of thinking about the problem itself. “
The app, which they named Mandla, derives from the word “Amandla” or “power” in Zulu and Xhosa, a rallying cry against the oppression of the apartheid era. Mandla includes a “word of the day”, a translation tool and interactive lessons for 10 languages to date. It also plans to introduce a social feature which will consist of a chat room with individuals conversing in the language the user is learning.
Drawing on her experience with people of a similar demographic, Apiou says families who have emigrated from African countries to the United States often want their children to learn English, not their native language.
“When you look at many languages spoken in Africa, even the most important ones like Igbo, they are expected to die by the end of the century simply because new generations do not speak it,” Apiou said. “This is why something like Mandla is essential for our generation and the generations to come. “
The Mandla app is now available in Google and Apple stores.