Mobile Xhosa for health practitioners

29 April 2013

It’s a problem commonly faced by healthcare practitioners in multilingual societies: how to translate medical questions put to them in other languages accurately enough for them to provide correct diagnoses and treatment.

Saadiq Moolla, a sixth-year medical student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), had to deal with the problem himself when treating isiXhosa-speaking patients as a volunteer at mobile clinics run by student community service organisation Shawco.

His response was to develop Mobile Xhosa – – a mobi-site that provides free English/isiXhosa translations, via mobile phone, for commonly used medical phrases.

The site allows to search according to groups of commonly asked phrases such as “presenting problem”, “heart”, “respiratory” and “social”. It also offers a dictionary.

According to UCT’s online newsroom, the idea first came to Moolla two years ago, when the need for medical translations became apparent during his volunteer work for Shawco Health, the Shawco branch he now heads up. It was also fuelled by an interest in web design and communications he had developed as a schoolboy.

“Language proficiency is part of our medical training,” Moolla told the UCT news team. “We learn Afrikaans and isiXhosa through the Department of African Languages in the School of Languages and Literature, which teach us the basic skills needed to communicate with patients.”

But many students, like Moolla, still struggle with isiXhosa.

“So I built the site as an aid for myself, a handy reference on my phone. It helps so much to be able to explain to a patient that you will be taking blood, for example, so that they understand what you’re doing and why. It reduces anxiety and improves the quality of care.”

Moolla then partnered with the university’s African languages and literature team on developing the mobi-site further.

It’s still a work in progress, the UCT newsroom reports. “The department provides new translations on an ongoing basis – and Moolla keeps discovering new phrases he has trouble communicating.

“He’d like to include sound bites to help students with pronunciation, and he’d like to see the site expand to include other vernacular languages.”

University of Cape Town and SAinfo reporter