Sunday, February 29, 2004

Had an interesting exchange re the Gutenberg Project's interest in including works in African languages in its collection of e-books. I've long thought that weblishing older published material in various African languages, such as the old Classiques Africaines series, would be an easy way to get some good quality content on the web. This may seem somewhat far from applications related to development, the long-term focus of Bisharat (link at left, under "Other Links, Work"), but in fact any quality African language material in my opinion helps achieve a kind of "critical mass" making the addition of other temporary, current and targeted material easier. In the case of some of this material, it may also serve to help set the high-end standard for web-content in some languages.

There's a fair amount, from my recollection of some bibliographic work, but mostly it's tucked away in university libraries in the north, inaccessible in any form on the continent.

This all seems to be the result of connections made by Djilali Benamrane, formerly of UNDP, with a very positive response from Michael Hart, the director of Gutenberg. More on this later, hopefully.

The NYTimes Magazine had a piece yesterday on disappearing languages, "Say no more." I posted the following quick reaction on a small MSN list on which the link was posted, Language and Development (the link was also posted later on ILAT). If you understand Bambara, the first line attempts to play off the article title "Say no more":

N'ka kan ka kuma kelen fɔ...

But first, thanks for this article, which I had not seen.

We hear a lot about disappearing languages, those that have 6 speakers like Kawesqar, some with 30-some speakers others with a few hundred. These are important matters, but most of us cannot do much directly.

At the same time I'm convinced that there are dangerous processes at play for languages that have tens or hundreds of thousands, or even 1 or 2 million. When languages are not taught at school, when people don't bother to teach the mother tongue to their children, when the popular idea is that the indigenous languages are somehow inferior, then the writing is on the wall. In the meantime, long before language extinction becomes a concern, I think there is a certain amount of "language impoverishment." I've known native speakers of Bambara and Fulfulde who have baldly stated that there is no word for such-and-such in their language, when in fact I as a language learner know that there is one or more. Two examples:

1. A Bambara speaker, telling me that Bambara was not suited for science, only "dialogue" gave as an example that there is no word for research ("recherche" in French, the language he was comparing it to) - but in fact one can say (correct me if I'm wrong!)
ɲini, literally to look for, or sɛgɛsɛgɛli, which has the sense of really getting to the bottom of things.

2. A Fulfulde speaker who didn't know the word for "blind person" -
bumɗo - but instead only knew how to say neɗɗo mo yiyataa - person who can't see.

3. A Hausa agricultural researcher in Niger who spoke impeccable French, but mastered her first language less well than an American colleague who had spent 3 years in the country.

Many times I've chatted with people who've been through the formal schooling system (almost all in Africa use only English or French) who have remarked how their elders could talk above their heads in their common maternal language.

It seems that this is a process happening all over. As an outsider looking at it, it is tragic (the consequences of colonization) and puzzling. Many African languages are numerically as important as official languages in Europe like Dutch, Danish, Catalan, and many in East Europe, but are not used in education. There are probably more webpages in Basque or Welsh than in any African language. Etc.

There are a lot of disadvantages Africa and its socio-economies, that is to be sure, but ultimately it's up to Africans to decide about aspects of language and culture on the continent.

It may be helpful to know that there are ways to revitalize African languages and keep the usefulness of the international languages. Bilingual education - at home, in the community, and in school - has been shown to benefit children. And there is international interest in bolstering education in Africa, which African authorities can direct toward approaches that include use of children's first languages.

All that said, there are certainly minority languages in Africa that are in danger of disappearing. Some of this in Africa as elsewhere is ultimately unavoidable. But a beginning point to dealing with this part of the situation is to understand how many such languages there are, and before that even, to understand what is a separate language and what is a dialect of a larger language.

N'y'a sɔrɔ yan, n'y'a bila yen...

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Rearranged & tinkered a bit with the lefthand column links. In particular added RSS feeds for several lists. Part of what interests me with this weblog medium is to facilitate access to active info across fora. This technique was just discussed by Andy Carvin on the DigitalDivide list (link at left, under More interesting lists) - thanks to him for sharing the info.

One problem I'm noting now, though, is that these are not the most recent posts that are displayed...

A new forum - Assimilation - is also included. This is a topic I've begun to think about in other contexts and seems to be worth offering a special place for. Given I don't have much time to promote it, it will double as a kind of experiment I guess, to guage how such a topic fares on its own.

Recently had some interesting exchanges about tapes from the old Sahel Oral Testimony Programme. Happily at least some of these are still extant. They are recordings of 500 interviews done in 1989 with people in the Sahel about their lives and livelihoods, the environment and changes in it. My hope is that connections already made can digitize these resources for safekeeping and that the means can ultimately be found to transcribe (in the original languages) and perhaps translate to "repatriate" these voices - audio + text - to the region via the internet.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Hannde mi winndi batake tati to Multilingual_Literacy. Ndaara to junngo ma nano e "kliku" dow innde mun.

Aujourd'hui ferié au Niger à cause de Muharram hier. On a visité et causé avec les stagiaires qui viennent de compléter leur première visit aux villages là où ils vont travailler pendant deux ans.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Today is International Mother Language Day, an observance established by the UN in 1999. Apparently there will be some ceremonies chez UNESCO on Monday 2/23. More info at En français à

In the panorama of holidays, anniversaries, and observances it may seem quite minor, but it is one of the only events calling attention to 1) language loss and 2) the too often overlooked (esp. in Africa) importance of first languages in education.

A couple of brief articles give more info: UNESCO urges teaching from earliest age in indigenous mother languages and UN's Mother Language Day Focuses On Conserving World's Linguistic Heritage.

There is no observance that I'm aware of in Niamey. A colleague I mentioned this to a while back asked, but there was nothing. And no time to generate something. Unfortunately the advance support from UNESCO for this seems to be minimal - they pull things together nicely in time (webpage, ceremonies), but for advance planning there is little. I did get a nice letter in response to inquiries offering to send materials, but it was too close to the event to allow for mail to arrive.

Problème avec l'affichage du français ici! Sur un autre ordinateur que j'utilise d'habitude pour regarder ce blog j'ai remarqué que les caractères accentés sont transformés en autres choses... Cela arrive je crois parceque ce page est en UTF-8, et selon la configuration du browser, les entités indiqués par caractères accentés veut transmettre d'autres informations que celles qu'on a esperé. A faami?? Franchement, je ne sais même pas si moi je comprends complètement. Une solution est de mettre, par exemple, & e a c u t e ; (sans les espace intercalés) pour e accent aigu dans le texte (html) du "post" etc. - mais c'est gênant. Donc je chercherai une autre solution...

Enfin, a couple of things written to someone re an interesting survey of cybercafés in Nairobi. It seemed to me that the question re language was missing. In fact language of content and access seems to be given little energy by people promoting ICT. Here are excerpts from my two letters; I omit the nice brief reply (basically saying no) to the first letter that I received this morning:

(Thursday, November 20, 2003 6:51 AM)

Greetings! I saw the item on your Nairobi cybercafé survey in Balancing Act's News Update #183 and found it very interesting. Indeed, this is a topic deserving more research and I hope your effort encourages same.

In looking at the News Update piece and the summary at I did not notice mention of any questions in what I think is an area of central interest, that of language. Maybe this subject was discussed in the full report, but I had trouble downloading it.

Some questions I would look for would include the languages people use in e-mail and websurfing (not sure how many sites in Kenya have Swahili, for instance, though there are a number in Tanzania of course) and whether users have any preferences in this regard that are not currently met with regard to content language (i.e., would they like to see more content in Kenyan languages). The latter question would seem to fit with the overall theme of the report that users sought more local content: does the language of the local content matter, to whom, in what ways, and to what extent?

This all would bridge to another set of questions re computer interfaces: although Swahili for example uses the ASCII character set, I understand that Gikuyu has some diacritic characters (see ) and that this may pose an inconvenience to people who might want to use this in, say, e-mail (see for example ). Have cybercafés dealt with this question or even thought about it?

Thanks in advance for any feedback and all the best!

(Saturday, February 21, 2004 10:51 AM)

. . . Re language I think it's always important and the interest is definitely real. Three things tend to submerge the issue in various agendas/discourses (including those relating to ICT):

1) In my mainly West African experience, there are things close to the heart that people don't make a big thing of overtly.
2) Many Africans have more or less bought into the line that their languages are "tribal dialects" or in any event unsuited for science, technology, and learning. This has been reinforced by the formal education systems which at best assign a secondary role to indigenous languages and in too many cases (esp. in former French colonies)
3) Many Westerners tend to assume away African languages, even though their intent be benign, since they generally don't understand them, and the Africans they interact with the most tend to be able to get by in English or French.

ICT adds another dimension to this. The association of English (or French) with technology, opportunity, and the exciting world elsewhere is understandable, but there could and arguably should be the opportunity for some balance. Nobody is suggesting that Africans have to use their languages on computers and the internet, but the current approaches in many ways tell them that they can't - or shouldn't be so foolish as to think of it.

The latter may seem gratuitous, but I've been dumbfounded by some things I've heard occasionally mainly from Westerners working in development here - why would someone want to use something other than French if they can understand that? ; we're a decade and a half away from any localization for African languages ; the plurality of African languages (and the inability to initiate use in all of them) makes it better to stay with English or French...

Coming back to your cybercafé survey, language is worth the question(s). Especially in the case of Swahili, which of course is an important regional language that is even being considered as a medium for instruction in higher education. But even in the case of Kenya for other maternal languages - there has been some significant publication in Gikuyu, for instance, so why not use it on the internet, or why shouldn't speakers of that tongue be interested in seeing some web content in it? The main thing is that behind the apparent "lack of excitement" on the topic there may be, and likely is, a range of opinion and interest. It would be interesting to know what this is currently and also to follow its evolution, if you are planning to continue the study.

. . .

Last item for this entry - I had joked about agricultural linguistics with a couple of our trainees not long ago. It's not as far out a juxtaposition as it might seem: I just ran across the term environmental linguistics looking for something else yesterday. That has a couple of senses it seems - depending on whether it's the built environment or the natural one - a distinction that means more perhaps to us with ag. & NRM backgrounds than to linguists. The latter sense seems along the lines of the operating premises of the NGO Terralingua. I still think that there's a fertile area for research and practice on language and development in Africa, and linguistics needs to be brought into the mix more vigorously.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A few quick items. In the last few weeks I've done some updates to several pages on the Bisharat! site (link on left), notably the links pages and the "basic documents." For the latter I am particularly indebted to CELHTO here in Niamey for the loan of some books and reports that I'm trying to find free time to scan - already done material for Abidjan '64, Ibadan '64 (tous les deux en français), Bamako '79, and la version française de Harare '97 (previously had only the English).

A few correspondence items relating to language in Africa, esp. of education. For instance just recently on the "Africa-oped"* list at:

I also discovered the "Mwananchi"** list - both it and the abovementioned have a staggering amount of traffic BTW - and posted something that was reposted on Africa-oped where you can see it in the latter's open archives:

a response on the topic of culture & development - here I veer off onto the question of language again

Mwananchi, so I discover, has a lot of input by George Ayittey, an American Univ. professor who has published on aspects of African development. His reply to the above I don't have permission to repost here - and the group is closed- archive - but here is my response to him today (in the socially equalizing etiquette of such groups, one is pretty much automatically on a first name basis):

Thank you, George. I'd be interested what you (and others) think of the work of Kwesi Prah and CASAS - - on standardization of regional & transborder languages for intercommunication in Africa. Certainly sets out to challenge some of the conventional wisdom.

The multilingual nature of African societies is a challenge but many argue a resource as well. The trick I guess is to find solutions to have the best of all possibilities, and Africa ends up (for reasons such as you indicate) with the worst instead.

I've been very interested in this regard to go over a number of documents on language policy in Africa from the last 40 years - which I find very thought provoking indeed. It seems that many good and realistic proposals for African languages have been made but never really implemented. See

Of course English, French & Portuguese have roles that are important, I'm not suggesting otherwise, but I do agree with those in other world regions that use of first languages in formal education (in proven bilingual approaches) has a lot of advantages for learning and personal development.

Anyway, that's one foreigner's take on it. Thanks again & in advance...


  1. The "beyond" in Beyond Niamey has been postponed until mid-March

  2. I'll recommence experimenting a little with this medium...

Under item #1, the watchword is "It ain't over 'til it's over and over" - three times Peace Corps / Niger has advertised my position and for the third time the position won't be filled. This time it was no one's fault (a med. issue apparently) but three in a row has got to be some sort of record. So, if you know someone with good agriculture & development background, African experience, and an interest in the Sahel, pass the word to check the Peace Corps site's employment page (link to the site is on the left).

Anyway I will still be leaving - mi yahan Asiin, so Alla jaɓii, to jom suudu et cukalel ngoni joonin. As for Peace Corps, la lutte continuera, mais sans moi.

In previous entries I mentioned students in the streets. That has continued on and off. Mainly means stay off the streets in the midmorning. There are grievances apparently having to do with stipends, and a couple of anniversaries of students killed in ... previous demonstrations that went violent (some years ago).

Trainees off to visit their sites. This is sort of a moment of truth for many - they've been out on field visits before, but now it's to where they'll live. In the way PC trainings work here, they will return and we'll discuss the experience before they finish training.

That said, as I mentioned on 1/20 the overall training format is novel (for those of you familiar with PC) in that the pre-service training is just over 8 weeks rather than 11, and they will get a follow up mostly technical training later.

Re #2 that's obvious if you're reading this. I am still interested in linking a blog-lite with postings in other media, or perhaps finding a better way to repost what I post elsewhere.

The problem with blogs as I see it is that they are just one more time-sink (which is how I view most personal journal keeping nowadays - having kept journals some years ago) unless they have a clear outword-looking purpose & readership. The reason I have preferred to post on topical lists/groups is that one can contribute to a dialogue or share info with others who are there for that purpose. The problem is that one's writing can then be scattered all over (I run into old postings of mine, sometimes reposted, in various places).

Maybe if a blog could include an indexing tool - something that would facilitate recording or recuperating links to material elsewhere, and selective archiving. Or something...