Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Global Language Advocacy Day 2022 - some thoughts

Today, 22 February 2022, has been announced as the first Global Language Advocacy Day (GLAD22) by the Global Coalition for Language Rights (GCLR). I only learned of it yesterday, which was International Mother Language Day (IMLD), so have only some first impressions to offer. I'll share those below along with some quick thoughts on advocacy.

First, I think it is great to have another day after IMLD to continue to think about, discuss, and do something with and for diverse languages. GCLR apparently picked the date with something like that in mind. IMLD and GLAD22 contrast with and also complement each other, which may potentially be very positive if the new observance continues.

GCLR is a coalition of several organizations - companies, NGOs - involved in human rights or language work, plus at least one institution of higher learning. So GLAD22 is the creation of this association, and not an observation agreed upon by an international organization, as is the case with IMLD. That is the first of several differences between GLAD22 and IMLD.

Another difference is that while IMLD, which has been observed annually for over two decades now, is truly international, GLAD22 - its first year - apparently had no activities in or relating to Africa. One imagines this will change before a second Language Advocacy Day, but this lacuna is the main reason that I wanted to post about GLAD22 on Beyond Niamey (watch this space?).

Finally, at the risk of oversimplifying, it seems that IMLD is mainly for the speakers, and GLAD22 is largely for allies. The former is essential, and the latter is important - in some cases perhaps critically so - but also tricky.

Advocacy - and I accept that I would fall into the category of an advocate, for the work I've chosen to do relating to African languages over the years - can ideally help positive change. The down side of advocacy, as I see it, is the potential for bringing one's own agenda, personality, and even misunderstandings into others' space. That's especially problematic when there is a difference of power (position) of the advocate and those s/he advocates for. (In international development, for example, I've noted the dynamic where outside experts effectively dominate all positions in a discussion about others' way of life.)

Which is not to argue against advocacy, but rather to advocate (!) both for awareness of the contexts in which one is advocating (e.g., the power differential) and for as deep a familiarity as is possible with the realities of those (or that) for which one is advocating. (I'm still thinking about this particular set of issues.)

In any event, hopefully Global Language Advocacy Day will develop in a positive way, connect with Africa, and complement IMLD.

Also, it is perhaps not coincidental that GLAD22 was initiated in this, the first year of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL). So one also hopes for constructive synergisms of effort and effect there as well.

Monday, February 21, 2022

IMLD 2022: Using technology for multilingual learning

Source: IMLD2022 social media pack. (Yes, the laptop graphic is
superposed on the photo)

The theme of the 2022 edition of International Mother Language Day (21 February) is "Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities." According to UNESCO's homepage for IMLD 2022, the focus of this year's observation is "the potential role of technology to advance multilingual education and support the development of quality teaching and learning for all."

Having a long-time interest in languages, technology, and development (with learning fundamental in that nexus), I'm personally happy to see the highlighting of  multilingualism and technology in education.

At the same time, one is well aware that multilingualism is often not a relationship of equals. Some languages are "well-resourced" in terms of materials, support for use in information and communication technologies, policy agendae, and monetary budgets. Other languages, including the mother languages of Africa, tend not to have these benefits in the same measure or at all.

So while it is a positive step to have all languages be included in multilingual approaches - as opposed to being marginalized or excluded from education and public discourse - I see an implicit call in the theme of this year's IMLD for attention to strengthening the position of the "less-resourced" languages among them. It would be helpful to make that point explicit.

Friday, December 31, 2021

On the eve of IDIL, some reflection

Just a quick signal at the end of 2021 to say that I hope to resume posting here intermittently in 2022, which also will be the first year of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL).

The place of African languages among indigenous or autochthonous languages - whether all of the first languages of the continent are included, or only some, and by what criteria - seems to me to still be an open question. I've explored that question in 4 posts on this blog, in case any of them might be of interest:

Although my schedule permits much less space than I would like for research and writing, and I am balancing pursuit of other interests as well, I remain keenly interested in African languages and their use in education, development programming, and advanced technologies. The next decade may be critical for the future of African languages, as language technology quickly advances with or without them, and the dynamics of inter-generational transmission of them change or even break down.

At the same time, I have been reflecting on what are and aren't appropriate roles for non-Africans in advocacy for, and pushing our ideas about, African languages. It is not as if these issues have never occurred to me, but observing the field and the general tendency of outsiders, especially of relatively privileged background, to populate all sides of any discourse on Africa, I needed to take a step back.

This is not to backhandedly call into question all people from one culture who propose to do work relating to another culture - in fact, all cultures, and the world in general, needs such diverse perspectives. However, between my part of the world and Africa, there are asymmetries of influence. So I am taking a moment to reflect on those, and how what I think I've been doing benefits from them, and what might be the inadvertent messages and unintended effects of that work.

Other than that, all is fine, Yerkoy sabu.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year 2022!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

IMLD 2021: What multilingualism means for inclusion

This year's International Mother Language Day (IMLD, 21 February 2021) has as its theme, "Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society." Of the key terms in this expression, most need little if any explanation. But the meaning of one of them - inclusion - merits attention.

When we speak of - or speak - mother tongues and second (or additional) languages, as individuals, communities, and countries, that is "multilingualism." "Education" is often thought of as connected with schooling, but it also includes other modes of learning and sharing knowledge. These two concepts - multilingualism and education - along with specific attention to mother tongues, have been recurrent themes in IMLD observances over the years. And they are often discussed together - for example as "mother tongue based, multilingual education" (MTB/MLE).

"Society" seems impossibly broad, taking in pretty much everything we do. That's certainly appropriate in this context, as language and choice of languages are fundamental to our communication, interaction, and collective memory (not ignoring the tandem role of images and non-verbal.forms of communication). However I read a new and encouraging dimension to the mention of society in this year's IMLD theme: a link with sustainable development.

In an IMLD 2021 concept paper by the UNESCO Education Sector and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, multilingualism is linked to the "Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind" (which, by the way, actually has an acronym: LNOB). This IMLD concept paper also mentions the centrality of multilingualism for indigenous peoples' development - from which we can assume that where many languages are spoken, engaging constructively with that reality is fundamental for everyone's development.

Before coming to what I see as the key term in this year's IMLD theme - inclusion - note should be made of the action word at its beginning: "fostering." I hear this as calling out the importance of policies and planning, and the effective implementation of these. The issues of multilingualism need active attention from not only individuals, but also governments and organizations, without which we have words and no action (and in the end, no words either).

Whose inclusion?

"Inclusion" turns out to be a tricky concept. Although I accept that the intent of its use in the IMLD 2021 theme is positive - the notion that languages can facilitate education and full participation in society - this term can also carry some less positive meanings. Chief among these is the implication that there is an outside and an inside, and those inside define the terms for bringing the outsiders in. There's a potential inequality there that led one writer from a community development perspective to propose abandoning the word inclusion altogether.

In the context of schools, inclusion is often (at least in the West) used in the context of students with special educational needs (and within that setting, one writer identified eleven definitions!). This does not seem to be an appropriate analogue for promoting multiple languages in education.

In the context of language and languages in Africa, the question of inclusion seems to me to become more complex. Upon independence, most African states opted to keep the colonial languages as official, rather than promoting use of one or more among their indigenous languages. This in effect put various ethno-linguistic groups within their borders at the same disadvantage (no one "inside group" controlling power). However, it also gave those who were fluent in the official languages an advantage, which is maintained through a dynamic described by Prof. Carol Myers-Scotton as "elite closure" (in other words, an there's an inside group after all).

At the same time, as Prof. Ayo Bamgbose once observed, many states operated on the paradigm that "one language always unites and many languages always divide." So in effect inclusion or exclusion in education and society have been defined to a large degree (in linguistic terms) on the basis of use of the one official language.

It is possible to find "inclusion" on more shallow level, in a group or structure that does not fully value what one brings to it, or that requires higher sacrifice from some than of others. That's as true regarding mother languages as it is regarding other aspects of culture.

While acknowledging the utility of a common language (lingua franca), the fostering of multilingualism seems to me to have the potential to shift the basis for inclusion from something centrally controlled or defined by a limited group, to a dynamic with more entry points.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A sabbatical, of sorts

The year 2020 has been a kind of Pandora's box of chickens coming home to roost. Unexpected in particulars, but not altogether unpredictable in terms of the kinds of problems we've seen. The COVID pandemic in particular has caused suffering and death, and then grief in the wake of those losses.

Against that backdrop - and thankful that my family and I have personally escaped the worst (Yerkoy saabu!) - I've taken a step back from posting here to reflect on what I am doing with this blog, and what are appropriate roles for a non-African and non-linguist like me in advocacy for African languages (of which I can claim some degree of mastery of only two).

To be honest, there have also been unanticipated changes in my schedule that have disrupted whatever rhythm I had in writing. And a number of interests competing for time and attention.

As we head into 2021, with hopes for better for everyone, one of my plans is to resume posting here, at least intermittently, and in an effort to contribute constructively and appropriately to discussion about the place of African languages in the global information society.

Friday, February 21, 2020

IMLD 2020: "Languages without borders"

The theme of this year's International Mother Language Day (IMLD2020; 21 February 2020) - "Languages without borders" - seems especially appropriate for Africa. So many (almost all?) African languages - or more accurately, populations having a common mother tongue - are divided by borders established during the colonial period (and prudently maintained in the interests of peace). And people on opposite sides of these borders continue to use their languages, which former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré once referred to as "sutures" linking neighboring African countries.

The African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), has had structures in place for some years to work on African "cross-border vehicular languages," which are larger in numbers of speakers and geographic extend of use. In her message on the occasion of IMLD2020, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay calls attention to all cross-border languages - all mother tongues that cross borders:
For IMLD 2020, UNESCO has chosen the theme of languages without borders to draw attention to the way in which all languages, including mother tongues, contribute to intercultural dialogue and peace. Indeed, throughout the world, numerous cross-border languages bring their speakers closer to one another, turning borders into bridges instead of barriers.

40% of people not educated in mother languages

In  her IMLD2020 message, Mme Azoulay also calls out another fact that is particularly relevant to Africa:
Moreover, mother tongues are valuable allies in our efforts to achieve quality education for all. In fact, as UNESCO studies have shown, studying in a language which is not one’s own interferes with learning and increases inequalities. Yet according to the most recent estimates, 40% of the world’s citizens find themselves in this situation. Bilingual or multilingual education based on students’ mother tongue not only encourages learning, but also contributes to understanding and dialogue among peoples.

As with all IMLDs, we hold out the hope that this observance may inspire more progress in use and development of the diverse languages that are productive and charished parts of our common human heritage.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

AfricaNLP2020 (Addis Ababa, 26-4-20) & related items

Quick post to call attention to an upcoming workshop on machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) in African languages, and its call for participation. Also a list of related initiatives, including the Machine Learning and Data Science in Africa (MLDS Africa) forum.

AfricaNLP2020 workshop - "Unlocking Local Languages"

The AfricaNLP2020 workshop will be held on 26 April 2020 as part of the Eighth International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The workshop is describes as follows:
"The rise in ML community efforts on the African continent has led to a growing interest in Natural Language Processing, particularly for African languages which are typically low resource languages. This interest is manifesting in the form of national, regional, continental and even global collaborative efforts to build corpora, as well as the application of the aggregated corpora to various NLP tasks."

The workshop aims are described as:
"• to showcase this work being done by the African NLP community and provide a platform to share this expertise with a global audience interested in NLP techniques for low resource languages;
• to provide a platform for the groups involved with the various projects to meet, interact, share and forge closer collaboration;
• to provide a platform for junior researchers to present papers, solutions, and begin interacting with the wider NLP community;
• to present an opportunity for more experienced researchers to further publicize their work and inspire younger researchers through keynotes and invited talks."

Submissions "for oral and poster presentations on a wide variety of NLP tasks for Afrcan languages ...  will be evaluated and selected through a peer review process." Deadline: 1 February 2020. (They can be submitted via EasyChair.org.)

Corpora-building, ML, MT, & NLP initiatives

The workshop page lists six collaborative effortson African languages, which I'll list below, as seen on their page, along with a seventh I learned about recently:
  • Niger-Volta Project - Speech Recognition, Language Identification, Machine Translation & Natural Language Processing for West African Languages 
  • Masakhane.io - A Focus on Machine Translation for African Languages
  • Cocohub.cc - A crowdsourced dataset builder and community for NLP in underrepresented languages (apparently translating MS-COCO captions into Afrikaans, Amharic, Bukusu, Coptic, Fanti, Luganda, Luo, Masai, Meru, and Nandi)
  • Umva.ai - An initiative  to build a Natural Language Processing Platform for Kinyarwanda and to make it available to all developers and for all use cases 
  • EthioNLP - Ethiopian Natural Language Processing Research
  • AI4D - African Language Dataset Challenge - A community effort to help uncover and create African Language Datasets for improved representation in the field of NLP (see also an update on its "Dataset Challenge" from 23 Dec. 2019)
  • PidginUNMT -  Unsupervised Neural Machine Translation from West African Pidgin to English (this was written up on Techcabal on 16 Dec. 2019)
It's great to see this kind of activity related to language technology. I've often thought that multilingual Africa has the potential to lead and innovate in this area.

MLDS Africa

MLDS Africa is an online network with a Googlegroup for communication among research groups such as the above, and a webpage with info on upcoming conferences and workshops, like AfricaNLP2020.


The image above connected with the ICLR conference hosting AfricaNLP2020 came from a page on SyncedReview.com with details on papers accepted for the main conference as of 20 Dec 2019. (The workshops on the first day of ICLR, such as AfricaNLP2020, evidently have their own deadlines.)