Thursday, March 25, 2004

Mi eggii, yaltii Niizer gilla balɗe sappo. Korka duu timmii gilla balɗe nay. Joonin miɗo waɗa jahangal ley Ameriik, fadde hootude galle amin ley Assiin.

Well beyond Niamey now. Events moving quickly, and too much to do, to maintain this blog regularly.

Some interesting meetings in DC when I was there. Mostly my time in this part of the trip is spent working on refining a presentation and paper.

In the meantime some other writing. One quick note to the authors of a report from last year, The impact of cybercafés on information services in Uganda, asking about how the dimension of language (multilingual ICT) fir in their research. It was not mentioned that I could see in what was otherwise an interesting article (similar issue to a recent survey of users' evaluati on of content in Nairobi which did not broach the issue of language either - see my posting in this blog of 21 Feb. 2004). My note to the authors of the Uganda survey included the following:

A number of significant questions come to mind that are hard to ignore in a polyglot society such as that of Uganda: How are maternal and vehicular languages such as Luganda and Swahili used currently in cybercafés and in local web content etc.? What are user practices and preferences in this regard? What are the attitudes and knowledge levels of cybercafé operators, governmental authorities and development projects to exploring and utilizing the multilingual potential of the technology? What different uses might different languages have in the evolution of cybercafés and MCTs as they respond to the realities and needs of the country?

Another letter was in response to part of a dispatch "Is there any hope for Africa" by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. On a trip to Chad and Sudan he commented on, among other things, education and its importance. Like so many who evaluate the African development situation, he sees the importance of education, but not some of the complexities in the issue brought about by the way education is approached. I offered the following (edited slightly here):

I just looked at your dispatch re education in Chad with great interest. You touch on some important aspects of this vital issue but there's one missing factor - that of the language(s) of instruction.

Since colonial times in most of Africa, formal education has tended to be approached as a monolingual agenda, relying entirely on European languages. There were and are various reasons and rationalizations for this then and now, but relatively little attention I'm aware of to discussing the costs for individuals and societies of ignoring people's first languages in education.

For one thing it is a sink-or-swim thing for kids arriving in school the first day to encounter an unfamiliar or little heard language. For another it puts up a barrier to greater parental involvement in their children's schooling. I've also been working on the hypothesis that this monolingual approach means for most school leavers what amounts to an impaired bilingualism/multilingualism, where they plateau at a certain functional level in their first language(s) and never attain a high level in the school language. (Education is not my field of specialization - that is rural development - but I've become increasingly interested in the language & basic education issues over the course of several years work in and study of West Africa.)

The oft cited main reason for not having any instruction in any African tongue is that there are "too many" languages. This is so often repeated that it is accepted as dogma even when the local realities would not prohibit use of relevant local languages at least in the first years of primary ed. From that flow other justifications like the cost of producing materials in diverse maternal languages or the fear that teaching children in anything other than the language inherited from colonization will lead to divisiveness.

All such questions and issues need to be examined critically and fairly, but at the moment it seems that the topic of language of instruction is largely omitted from the discourse. Odd, to say the least, in as multilingual a region as sub-Saharan Africa. I previously wrote Ms. Sengupta about this following her story on girls' education in Benin. One of the leads I gave her was Lynn Lederer, director of Save the Children in Mali, which has been deeply involved in Mali's successful program for first language primary education in that country. There are certainly other programs of this genre and I would think a very interesting article or two on what the choice of languages of instruction means for students and communities.

A quick addendum - lest there be any misunderstanding, the issue is not monolingual African language education instead of monolingual French or English, but rather effective bilingual approaches that incorporate at least early instruction in first languages, such as what is being implemented in Mali. There are other approaches that may use African languages for instruction or as subjects at higher levels. Africa is complex and various such solutions could be adapted as appropriate in different places.

Part of the reason for this concern is that outside interest in advancing basic education in Africa seems mostly to ignore the multilingual nature of African societies. The role of African governments (elites) in this tends to be to more or less passively reinforce the status quo (monolingual instruction in French or English). Between the two, it is hard to generate positive evolution in educational approaches.

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