Sunday, September 23, 2007

Some notes about all the lists in the sidebar

In another context someone suggested there might be too many lists about localization in Africa - a fair comment if you take a look at the amount of stuff I put in the left sidebar (which still isn't comprehensive - there are some other lists that should be added, and hopefully will be soon).

To clarify what's going on I thought it would be worth a little bit of background. I haven't put all this together in a narrative form yet, though I did do a summary table here (scroll down or earch "Table 7") not long ago.

Back about 5 years ago there really was no list dedicated to African languages and ICT. At the same time there was a dearth of information about what i18n made possible for African languages, and various other issues that hadn't been discussed.

Around late August 2001 I received a question from someone in Fantsuam Foundation about a keyboard for Hausa. I didn't have an authoritative answer so on Sept. 2 I set up a message board on called "Hausa charsets & keyboards" as a way of perhaps getting other input to this and related questions.

I later set up similar boards on as part of my response to new questions about other languages. In some cases it seemed appropriate to set up the board for all languages in a country, rather than each language. Creation of these message boards - (10 in all - at this point) was in this sense demand driven. Their success has varied, but at the least they continue to serve as places where relevant information can be posted and found by anyone.

In January 2002 I took another tack. Having participated in the Unicode list, being aware of the dearth of information on Unicode in many countries where French is the official language, and having seen the relative success of some French-language Yahoogroups on other ICT in Africa topics, I set up a list called "Unicode-Afrique." This has proved to be one of the most successful, although it is rather quiet lately. (There is some trouble with the RSS feed for this list - still working on it.)

It became clear that it would help to have a specialized list for some technical questions relating to extended Latin characters (commonly referred to as special characters or modified letters). So in March 2002, "A12n-collaboration" was set up. "A12n" was a coined acronym for "Africanization" in the sense of the "last mile of i18n" and L10n in Africa (I briefly discussed this on this blog in a posting on February 06, 2005).

The A12n-collab list was originally intended as a temporary online working group to advance and link efforts to define the needs of African languages in terms of extended characters and diacritics (fonts, keyboards). This list was quite active for a while and facilitated some new work. It in 2004 it was also added to LinguistList's roster of mailing lists.

The traffic on Unicode-Afrique, A12n-collab, and the QT boards pointed to some other needs. First was a portal where people could easily find information, sites, and projects discussed on the various forums. Thus the "A12n gateway" page was created. Currently this page needs updating, but will be reformulated to provide some current information complementary to the PanAfriL10n wiki and retain older material for background.

Another apparent need was for lists that were less narrowly technical and more addressed to applications and localization efforts. So, in June 2003, two new lists were created: "A12n-forum" in English, and "A12n-entraide" in French. Neither list has really fulfilled the hopes for them, though some interesting information has been posted on A12n-forum and to a lesser degree A12n-entraide.

With the beginning of the PanAfrican Localisation project in April 2005 and the preparations for its first workshop in June, a list for communicating about logistics was set up called "PanAfrLoc." Following the workshop, members continued to use it for communication about various topics (the archives only reflect this). One of the problems with this list was that its members included people more comfortable in English or French as working languages, but that it was not possible to translate all traffic.

PanAfrLoc was closed in favor of a new set of lists for different working languages: PAL-en in English, PAL-fr in French, and PAL-pt in Portuguese. Messages to any one of the lists are translated and sent to the other two via a service called Tradauto. All the traffic is additionally reposted to PAL-Archives (the RSS from which is in the sidebar.

There are some additional lists of note from other sources:

[more to come]

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Language - a vital & neglected topic in African agricultural development?

Following are some excerpts with minor modifications from the introduction I wrote to comments on a report about agricultural development in Africa several months ago. These are in italics, followed by some comments to put it in a personal perspective:
I see language as an important consideration often - and paradoxically - omitted from discussions on agriculture and rural development in Africa: language and specifically communication about agriculture in farmers' languages and/or local lingua francas. ... The issues of choice of language in development communication, and the implications of those choices for who participates, whose knowledge counts, how well knowledge that is exchanged is understood and appropriated, etc. [have] implications for analysis or action. ...

I think it is fair to say that only in Africa (esp. sub-Saharan) is it the general pattern that the languages dominant in agricultural research and extension are different from those the farming populations speak as their first languages and even lingua francas. There are various reasons for this of course, but the fact is important, and too central to any effort to communicate about science and technology with farmers to be left on the margins of the discourse, let alone to be totally ignored.

Rural realities as concern language and linguistic diversity are not unknown to scholars and practitioners concerned with agriculture in Africa, of course, and many of our African colleagues have themselves lived those realities to one degree or another. However, disciplinarily, such language-related issues are alien to agricultural specialists (to a greater extent even than the broad category of social science), and in practice language differences are left to extension agents and/or intermediary farmers in the field to deal with. Moreover, professional incentives, training and education, etc. are all in English, French and Portuguese, not the first languages of agriculture in Africa.

As a consequence there seems to be a linguistic divide with consequences for understanding, transmission and generation of knowledge etc. This issue, which has many unanswered questions but not easy answers, is underresearched, in part because of a disciplinary divide which linguists on the one hand and the range of specialists concerned with agricultural development on the other need to find the will and means to bridge.

I recall working in rural areas and there were many occasions where multiple languages complicated communication or even shaped the way the work was done. At the time it was just one of those things you and your co-workers dealt with. My main counterpart in an animal traction project in the Amlamé district of Togo spoke Ewe as his first language (L1) but the farmers spoke either Kabiye or Akposso as their L1. With a mixture of French and mostly Mina/Ewe, my counterpart could get the messages across. I worked mainly in French and while communication was possible with some of the farmers it was not with the rest. People there were adept at using their "language portfolios" as it were to translate and complete some sort of communication. How much was lost is another matter and I suspect in retrospect that this system is good for the gist but not nuance or detail, and the "devil is in the details" as the saying goes.

It was clear in any event that no one had planned systematically for how communication across languages was to happen - everything sort of depended on extension agents' and farmers' skills in the field.

In working on a forestry project in the Djenné district of Mali, language and ethnicity emerged as issues in deciding which villages to contact for participation in tree planting (the project was just beginning there and it was not possible by any means to go everywhere). The local staff was more comfortable in Bambara than in some other languages, and indeed it was in the Bambara-speaking villages that the work focused (other issues like perception of the readiness of some other groups to reliably participate in tree planting were also expressed - it is hard to sort out the different factors, but that would have been important to do).

The multiplicity of languages is sometimes pointed at as a problem in Africa, but I think that misses the point. In fact it is not the multilingualism that is the issue but the fact that no few if any (as far as I know) discussing how to best work in the linguistic environment.

At the same time, the skill of Africans generally in facilitating communication across languages (which has been discussed in the literature on African languages) may be obscuring the need for more systematic attention to the issue.

It was interesting to note that some researchers with ICRISAT and IITA who had to follow up on field trials with farmers by means of a questionnaire decided to translate the questionnaires into the farmers' languages (Bambara in Mali for sorghum trials I believe, and Hausa in central Niger for cowpea trials). Having one or many field agents translate the questionnaire from French each time it was administered was obviously going to introduce all sorts of unknowns into the quality of the data. The research need for greater precision led to the obvious choice to communicate in the farmers' languages.

So, one wonders, what about the way field agents translate extension information day-to-day?

It took me a while to really catch on to this issue, even though I have worked on language as well as rural development. Which has me wondering why - was I just slow or what? I do think now, as I indicated in the excerpts quoted above, that part of it is a disciplinary culture and divide issue: the issue was agriculture or forestry, and the foreign experts and the research/extension systems function in French (in those countries). Language, or optimizing communication in specific languages, were not something that entered into the discourse.

This gets into speculation for the reasons, but the main point I'm trying to make is that language is a big deal and there hasn't been enough thought given or research done on how big a deal it is, in what precise ways, and how to best address it. Discussing new approaches and techniques for agriculture in Africa, and especially discussing dissemination of knowledge about these, without engaging the issue of language seems to me to be a mistake we don't have to keep making.

Anyway, this is an issue that I've mentioned before (for instance, Sept. 14, 2006) and will come back to periodically.

Sidebar improvements

I've made some more changes on the sidebar, which hopefully is more useful now.

Friday, September 21, 2007

So, what about the last year?

Busy. Some work highlights:

  • Vastly expanded the Pan African Localisation wiki (and that's still in progress). The idea with this is to develop a comprehensive information resource for people of a range of backgrounds approaching localization in African languages. First of all, localizers - people working on or planning a project for some aspect of localization in one or more African langauges. Also policymakers (ICT, language, and increasingly localization), development program planners, local activists, etc. It involves bringing a lot of information together (in many cases just basic with outlinks) and interlinking it. Localization to a certain degree involves bringing together of "previously unrelated skills, or matrices, of thought" (per the well known formulation of Arthur Koestler in another context some years ago) so this wiki is combining information on African languages and sociolinguistics, along with language technology tools, ICT4D information, mention of policies etc. In fact, all these "skils or matrices of thought" can also be understood as interacting parts of a larger "localization ecology," which is a concept I'm working on.

  • Presented at and participated in "Regional Consultation on Local Language Computing Policy in Developing Asia" and "PAN Localization Project Phase II Meeting"meetings of the PAN Localisation Project, held in Thimphu, Bhutan in January. The PAN L10n project is funded by IDRC and has been particularly successful in facilitating localization work in several countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The discussion of "local language computing policy" involved representatives from several other countries in the region.

  • Attended a one-day seminar on "Recent Experiences on Measuring Languages in Cyberspace" at UNESCO in Paris. This was on 22 February, the second day of a two day observance of "International Mother Language Day."

  • Helped organize and participated in the "Pan African Research on L10N Workshop & Localization Blitz" held in Marrakech, Morocco in February 2007. This is another piece in IDRC's strategy to develop a network for localization in Africa. The workshop was organized by the Tactical Technology Collective - same organization that put together Africa Source I (Okahandja, Namibia, 2004) & II (Kalangala, Uganda, 2006) and the Localisation Dev workshop (Warsaw, Poland, 2004). Many of the participants also had been at the PanAfrican Localisation Workshop in Casablanca, Morocco (2005); three others and I came from the seminar in Paris mentioned above.

  • Attended the 38th ACAL 2007 & 11th ALTA 2007 Conference held at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, US, in March 2007. This was an opportunity to connect with various people involved in research on and teaching of African languages. It has been my thought for a while that linguists and language instructors can be involved more with localization efforts.

  • Submitted extensive comments on the Africa section of the "International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development" in May. More about this in a later post.

  • Taught a distance course on "Language and Development Communication for the Payson School of Tulane University. This was an interesting challenge and opportunity to learn as well as teach. I hope I have the opportunity to give this course again.

  • Continued to interact online with various people working on aspects of localization and internationalization. This is not really news though - have been doing this in one form or another for several years.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reviving the blog - again (?!)

After a year's hiatus, I'm going to post at least a few more items here.

One task is to update the list of lists in the left sidebar and all the RSS feeds there - have begun that already. I tend to write more in various lists and online fora anyway, and those links and feeds will reflect those efforts (as well as posts by others of course).

What I will try to do more of here is posting material that does not go on public lists but might be of more general interest, as well as some items which do go out on lists but that I would like to include here. This will hopefully provide more material for thought, discussion, and action with regard to African languages and/in the information society(ies).