Lagos, August, 25th, 2017 (Wired). BBC Pidgin is a significant breakthrough for language diversity online – and a reminder that the internet must move beyond the English language as more people come online
How do you go about writing down a language that is almost entirely oral? For the staff of the BBC World Service's new Pidgin news site, it all started with listening. Lots of listening.
Despite being spoken by an estimated 75 million people in Nigeria alone – and as a first language for five million people – Pidgin has, until this week, been marginalised online. "In terms of its text life it lives pretty much on social media," says Miriam Quansah, BBC's digital lead for Africa.
To begin the process of converting a primarily oral language into an agreed written form, the World Service interacted with people across Africa who spoke it.
The team who built the service (some of whom can translate Shakespeare into Pidgin) travelled to west Africa to speak to young people, visit universities and consult professors and experts in the area to observe how they communicate. The service will bring language diversity to the news and current affairs that west and central African audiences receive, where Pidgin is one of the most widely-spoken languages.
Adverts, radio stations, films and music are already produced in Pidgin, but news organisations have traditionally shunned it. Pidgin is a mix of English and local languages, which is why it's often offensively referred to as broken English.
Despite its popularity, people speak Pidgin with varying levels of fluency. And, as it is not studied in schools, it doesn't exist in a standardised written form. Because Pidgin is seen as an informal language, there is sometimes a stigma around speaking it, which the BBC team thinks the new service is helping to break.
The decision to make this a digital only service was based on the fact that African people prefer to read content on their mobile phones.
Although Pidgin is spoken in different forms across Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, there are a lot of words that unify them all. Pidgin will soon be joined by 11 more new services in Africa and Asia, as part of the World Service's biggest expansion since the 1940s, thanks to a 2016 funding boost from the UK government.
BBC Pidgin will provide a mix of local, regional and international news current affairs and analysis. The production hub is based in Lagos, the commercial capital, but reporters in Ghana, Cameroon and elsewhere in Nigeria will also be gathering local news.
Other new languages that will be offered by the BBC World Service include Korean, Gujarati, Telegu, Marathi and Punjabi for India and Amharic and Oromo for Ethiopia and Tigrinya for Eritrea.