Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What's up with the Bureau of Ghana Languages?

In the previous entry, I inserted a quote (from an article about International Mother Language Day in Ghana) about books being locked up in the warehouses of the Bureau of Ghana Languages (BGL). Actually the point of that was that the supply is there, but that somehow the demand is not connecting with it - so the books remain, presumably, boxed and stacked, in storage.

Another article from Ghana on IMLD (Accra Daily Mail, "Any hope for local Ghanaian languages ... As thousands of others worldwide face extinction?" 26 Feb 08) mentions the BGL in a way that raises another issue:

The Bureau of Ghana Languages is poorly resourced and exists all but in name. The sorry and dying state of the Bureau is a reflection of where Ghana's local languages are heading.

So, what's happening? BGL is producing materials that are evidently not flying off the shelves, and it is apparently underfunded and giving the impression - at least to the author of one article - of being moribund. I'm curious to hear any more about the situation.

At the same time I recently looked again at the website of another institution in Ghana, the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT / Advanced Information Technology Institute. It has international attention and partnerships, adequate funding, and an apparent dynamism.
I presume that's a reflection, at least in part, of Ghanaian government and foreign donor priorities. BGL may not be able to command the same attention, but what about some sort of partnerships? KACE/AITI is apparently looking at some localization, and BGL presumably has the language expertise. BGL might do well to expand its perspectives beyond traditional printing, and KACE/AITI has expertise in ICT - the direction in which content development in all languages is going.

Anyway these are some questions and thoughts. Institutions and agencies like BGL in various African countries often struggle with little in the way of funding, technology, official support, and connection with their ultimate consumers / audience. It's probably time to look systematically at what their status is and ways to support their growth and success.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Burning textbooks, beating schoolchildren

African languages have not only been passed over as languages of instruction and even omitted from school curricula in much of Africa, they have in some cases been actively excluded. While a full discussion of the issues involved would take something much longer than a blog post, I wanted to review a few facts and anecdotes. It should be noted that the worst abuses were in the colonial past.

Burning Tigre textbooks

One of the more striking examples from Ghirmai Negash's article (see the previous entry) was how in the 1970s in Eritrea, the ELF declared illegal a school curriculum in the Tigre language and ordered all copies of the school book to be burned.

This may be an extreme example but one from Madagascar in the 1980s may be more typical. Apparently the government of Madagascar at one point needed foreign assistance to produce textbooks for its schools. At the time the instruction was in Malagasy, but when France offered aid, it was with materials in French. (Unfortunately I don't have the reference at hand). It has been noted elsewhere that the UK and US are very forthcoming with materials in English. It would be hard to say how often English, French or Portuguese materials have replaced African language ones, or to what degree their availability has been a disincentive to develop African language materials.

Even when there are materials in African languages, they are not always well distributed. The article on International Mother Language Day in Ghana (available here, and mentioned in an earlier posting) mentions:
It is however very pathetic to note that while schools complain of lack of Ghanaian Language books which affects the teachers' delivery of lessons and consequently the performance of their pupils in their schools, publications of the Bureau [of Ghanaian Languages] are locked up in our ware houses in Tamale and Accra and are not being patronised.
So at least in some cases, books for learning in African languages have been burned, replaced by books in other languages, or "locked up" in warehouses. This is not even to mention those that are out of print and only available in distant libraries.

Beating or shaming schoolchildren for speaking their mother tongue

The history of schooling in Africa has many stories of how African languages were excluded from classes and school grounds (not always, but in many places) and punishments were meted out for transgressing the rule. I recently posed a question on the H-Africa list about the degree to which this is still happening. (It does still happen, but probably not as extreme as in the past.)

It is not only a question of teachers punishing students but also ways of involving peers in the punishment (see this example from a blog on Lesotho). There are some other links here (post #8).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Role of African languages for development

The African Academy of Languages uses the slogan "African languages for African development." Unfortunately there is not yet a strong body of literature linking language and development in Africa. There are several works of note that discuss African languages from various perspectives - linguistic and sociolinguistic aspects to language and education policies. However few works make the case for greater and more effective use of Africa's first languages in development plans and programs.

Probably the only book-length treatment of the role of African languages in development is Clinton Robinson's Language Use in Rural Development: An African Perspective (Walter de Gruyter, 1996). This is a valuable work, but is more a book on micro-level linguistics in a development context and does not connect with some of the main development concerns. (Dr. Robinson now works with UNESCO on literacy issues.)

Part of the reason I'm writing about this topic now is that I recently saw on the "Sociolingo’s African Linguistics" blog reference to an article entitled "Globalization and the Role of African Languages for Development" by Ohio University English professor Ghirmai Negash. Although written in 2005, the paper apparently has just been made available online. It is a welcome addition to the literature on language and development in Africa.

Dr. Negash's perspective is a macro one. Building from a consideration of Africa's responses to globalization, and considering aspects of the African condition like the "division between the population and the elite" (which has linguistic dimensions explored in other literature), he argues that "African languages could be the most critical element for Africa’s survival, and cultural, educational and economic development." His discussion revolves around a central question - "How can Africans meaningfully connect with and respond to the demands of the global order, without compromising their cultural values?" - and touches on some important points.

I won't attempt a full review here, but will say that the fact of Dr. Negash's reviewing and rebutting some of the common objections to increased use of African language is useful. He also brings in examples and references that I found interesting and helpful.

Nevertheless, in this relatively sparsely covered (but nevertheless very important) field of language and development in Africa, my general impression is that the articles I'm aware of often tend to recycle arguments (which is to some extent necessary), and that in some cases, it is not clear whether authors are aware of all the existing relevant literature. Part of the problem is that this is an interdisciplinary field that includes a big "divide" between linguistics on the one side and development studies on the other (I've referred to previously to this, on Sept. 22, 2007).

At this point in time maybe one essential resource would be a comprehensive bibliography - and that would have to be structured (topically) based on a particular understanding of relevant topics (i.e., some works in development relating to subjects like participation or development communication might be relevant even where they do not specifically mention language).

Before concluding this entry, I will mention that the topic of Dr. Negash's paper elicited a small exchange of views on the lgpolicy-list just recently.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

International Mother Language Day

Today is the ninth annual observance of International Mother Language Day (IMLD) and the date of formal launching of the International Year of Languages (IYL). (See also my previous posting about the IYL on 31 Jan.)

A few mentions of IMLD in the African press:

  • In Gambia, the Banjul paper Daily Observer had an article entitled "2008 - the Year Ahead in Education." Dated on 16 January, it mentioned both IMLD and the IYL.
  • In South Africa, the African National Congress newsletter ANC Today (Vol. 8, No. 6 • 15-21 Feb. 2008) featured a letter from its president, Jacob G. Zuma entitled "Our Languages Matter!" (it can also be read here). He uses the occasion of IMLD & the launch of the IYL to highlight the importance of all the country's languages and ways in which their use should be supported.
  • In Ghana, the Daily Graphic of 20 Feb. 2008 included a feature article entitled "International Mother Tongue Day" (from the site; it can also be read here). It is a very interesting discussion of issues relating to use of Ghanaian languages, such as popular attitudes, policy, and education.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Accessing the Internet in Lusoga?

A recent article in the magazine of the Ugandan newspaper East African, with the odd title of "Mother tongue interference on the Internet" (also available here) discusses Kiganira Deogracious Kijambu's "dream that one day he will access the Internet in Lusoga, his mother tongue." He's described as having developed a successful "e-commerce agricultural business."

The latter fact is significant. There is I think a tendency to discount the utility of local language content or interfaces in a medium that knows no local boundaries. E-commerce in a language with just over million speakers? Even if one considers that Lusoga is very close to Luganda, which has a few million more first & second language speakers, this is still relatively small in the global scheme of things.

I've even tended to emphasize not e-commerce in my discussions of African languages and ICT for rural development, but rather information for extension and building on local technical knowledge. So this article is a welcome reality check as it were. If you're planning to expand use of ICT for any kind of rural development in Africa, don't discount the languages that farmers and their communities speak in their work.

The next question is how to link Mr. Kijambu with others in Africa and beyond who can help this dream become a practical reality. More on that later.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Linking L10n & ICT4D: Bring back AfAgrICT-L?

One way of describing my focus in working on Bisharat and the PanAfrican Localisation project is linking localization (L10n) of information and communications technology (ICT) with ICT for development (ICT4D) in Africa. Last October I framed this as a question on the LinkedIn network in this way: How to promote better integration & synergism among ICT4D & L10n activities in Africa?

It's an ongoing concern and a question that needs to be returned to from time to time. Therefore I will try to periodically revisit this issue here with specific news, questions or ideas. One of those follows:

Bring back AfAgrICT-L?

About 9 years ago, an email list called "AfAgrICT-L" was set up to facilitate communication about use of ICTs in African agriculture and natural resource management. It was set up by CTA, hosted by Bellanet. Its origins go back to 1995 as described on this page (retrieved from the Wayback Machine), and was intended to "be operational for at least 1 year, after which its continued use and relevance will be re-evaluated." Its purposes were described as:

  • Identify and indicate key ICT issues and strategies relevant to agricultural development and natural resource management in Africa;
  • Improve the common pool of knowledge and expertise available in this area;
  • Identify relevant projects and expertise that could assist in defining strategies
  • Provide a mechanism for monitoring technical developments and electronic information sources which can benefit those working in the area of agriculture, rural development and natural resource management.
I discovered AfAgrICT-L in late 1999 and participated on it until it faded out in 2001 or so. It was a brief period, but left an impression. CTA called it "influential." Yet it was closed.

There is now renewed focus on African agriculture as central to African development, and at the same time ICT4D (and ICT in general) is only getting more important in the region. A forum for these topics - ICT, ICT4D, and African agriculture - seems even more timely now than it was several years ago. Of course one could start a website or a list in a short time, but I'm thinking that to revive this known project, and adapt it to the evolving situation, could be of great use for professionals, researchers, and program managers in the coming years.

Then there is the L10n dimension - ICT in African languages. Farmers and rural communities rely even more on African languages than urban areas, and local environmental and agricultural knowledge are embedded in their langauges and cultures. L10n and ICT(4D) in agriculture and NRM would seem to be a natural combination, and support for L10n is much further along now than it was before. So one added dimension for a new AfAgrICT-L could be the intersection of the technical concerns with how to incorporate and adapt localization as appropriate for different goals.

So, is it time to bring back AfAgrICT-L in a new form?

CTA's ICT Update: "Language Technology"

Having mentioned CTA, I should also note that their ICT Update Issue 40 (Dec. 2007) is devoted to the theme "Language Technology." I had the privilege of contributing one of the articles, "Localizing Languages."