Friday, February 28, 2014

See you in Bamako in 2016?

Forty-eight years ago today, in Bamako, Mali, began a UNESCO-supported expert meeting on the "Unification of Alphabets of National Languages."* Running from 28 February until 5 March, 1966, this meeting was a key part of efforts to harmonize or standardize writing systems for several West African languages, which fall under the category that we now refer to as "cross-border" languages. Would the 50th anniversary of this event be an ideal time to revisit its impact, and ongoing challenges and opportunities for written African languages in general?

The Bamako 1966 meeting followed several smaller meetings and built on efforts that began during the colonial period. It in turn was followed by others, notably one in Niamey in 1978 that attempted to take the harmonization up a level with a proposed standard reference alphabet for all of Africa. One of the issues with writing African languages that had limited or no written tradition has been how to accommodate sounds that were not readily represented by imported alphabets. Another was how to develop standards for languages that crossed Africa's new borders - which in many instances were also borders between areas where different Europhone languages, and their respective phonetic systems, were dominant. These meetings dealt with both, drawing on national experiences and expert opinions.

The result of these meetings was a remarkably coherent set of standards that has guided many African countries on developing orthographies for their national languages (as the term tends to be used there).

In later years, conferences and expert meetings on planning for African languages dealt more with policy, and applications such as literacy and localization. Yet there are still issues with African languages in print and writing, some larger, some dealing with details, and some that could not have been anticipated by the notables and experts of half a century ago. Some of those are certainly being addressed by the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN)'s Vehicular Cross-Border Language Commissions and National Language Structures.

Ultimately it would be for ACALAN and/or other African language organizations to decide on the utility of a general meeting in the near future, but what might a conference on the 50th anniversary of the seminal Bamako 1966 expert meeting have on its agenda? As indicated above, one issue might be a kind of stock-taking of how the work of the early expert meetings has served a range of efforts in African languages, from education and literacy, to literature, and via Unicode, to social media and mobile devices.

And about Unicode, how is it supporting written African languages? One issue which seems to have receded as the technology has improved, is how well dynamic composition works for complex Latin (where characters have accent/tone mark combinations not included as single characters in the Unicode standard - some languages such as Yoruba and Igbo have this). There may be other details such as that of the capital "eng" letter.)

A larger issue is how the focus on "unification" of African alphabets on the one hand and country-level practice on the other relate. "Harmonization" seems to be a fortuitous concept, but is it, and how should it work going forward, when dynamic local usage may seem to go the other way? (See for example the earlier post on "Texting in Wolof & implicatons for standard orthographies.")

Since the early conferences (and indeed language policy in many states) focused on the Latin-based alphabet, a new conference might also consider other scripts, such as Ethiopic/Ge'ez, Arabic (often referred to as Ajami when used to write African languages), and N'Ko. The focus could be more technical, including issues such as harmonization (especially for Ajami) and transliteration, to support more policy options for countries where diverse scripts are used.

We're still two years out from the 50th anniversary, but it is not too early to discuss the utility of using that occasion to bring together a new generation of experts working on support for written African languages.

* The French language version is available on the Bisharat website.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Language, Peace and Security

On this International Mother Language Day, the US Institute of Peace, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and SIL International have organized a "Symposium on Language, Peace and Security" at the USIP in Washington, DC. It is being webcast on the event page (in break as I write and post this).

A Twitter hashtag is being used for some live tweets: #langpeacesec. In one tweet, @USIP indicated that the proceedings will be made available online about a week after the symposium.

Description (excerpts from event page):
The role of language—both as a means of communication and as an expression of identity – is a vital consideration for any serious discussion of peace and security. The Symposium on Language, Peace, and Security, which marks UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, will:
  • Look at the overlooked linguistic and educational dimensions of a simmering conflict pitting Pattani Malay-speaking Muslims against the government of Thailand.
  • Address the importance of ensuring linguistic human rights through educational policies and practices that value and promote linguistic diversity.
  • Consider language policy in education and how it may serve to exacerbate or mitigate violence.
Can careful consideration of language and communications in discussions of peace and security lead to real solutions to conflicts? How do issues of language, language complexity, and communication play out in peace-building efforts and ongoing security? How can language issues be identified and addressed effectively in policy planning and execution?

Keynote Presenters:

Patricia Friedrich
Associate Professor of Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition
Arizona State University
Suwilai Presrirat
Professor of Linguistics and Founder of the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia
Mahidol University, Thailand
Terrence Wiley
Center for Applied Linguistics
Zeena Zakharia
Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education
University of Massachusetts, Boston
George A. Lopez, Keynote Discussant
Vice President of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding
U.S. Institute of Peace
Peter Weinberger, Moderator
Senior Program Officer
United States Institute of Peace
Perspectives from the Grassroots
Community-based practitioners reflect on the relevance of language to peace and security.
Joel Trudell, SIL International; Unian Samoh, Mahidol University; Cecilia Ochoa, Save the Children; Micael Olsson, World Vision
Personal perspectives

The symposium topic and presentations helpful in expanding discussion of the importance of language(s) in planning and development-related work.

For some time I have discussed links among language, development, and information and communications technology. My work in support of localization and interest in applications of human language technologies address the language - technology connection. The connection between language and development, as others have observed, still needs more work. The connection between language on the one hand and peace and security on the other is an important complement to the latter.

Having in recent years worked more in relation to peace and security, I appreciated the opportunity to hear from others making the connections between those concerns and language planning.

Language is never the cause of conflict (as some scholars have pointed out in the past), but in some cases it might be a focus in conflict. Moreover, as several presenters showed, attention to first languages may be important in alleviating factors (such as social exclusion) that may lead to conflict.

Various interesting lessons and case studies in the symposium, with two presentations that explored the particular issues and approaches in southern Thailand. Some useful concepts included: "peace linguistics" (Dr. Friedrich); and "equity in learning" (Ms. Ochoa).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Gallup World Poll and African languages

Gallup, Inc. has conducted its World Poll survey in 160 countries annually since 2005. Such an undertaking naturally involves many translations of the questionnaires (research instruments) for use in many different societies. According to Gallup's Country Data Set Details (2005-2013), in the 26 African countries where the poll was taken, questionnaires were translated into the following African languages, in addition to the Europhone official languages of most countries - English, French, or Portuguese (this list was keyed in from the country-by-country info in their data table; outlinks on language names are to Wikipedia articles):

This represents a significant effort, involving translations that are, as I understand it, done on the country level. It also implies a number of issues that would be interesting to explore further, such as how translations are handled for the several cross-border languages used in the poll (indicated in the above list by two or more country names in parentheses). A related issue is whether there is any cross-reference in the translation process between versions in very closely related languages (such as Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, or the Manding languages,.Bambara and Dioula (Jula), or the Nguni languages, Ndebele, Xhosa, and Zulu).

Another issue is assuring equivalency among translations from the original language (English) version into the whole range of languages. This is an obvious challenge for something of such wide multinational scope, for which the usual equivalency testing would be too hard and expensive (at least with available human language technology). How well can tight revisions of translations from the main language version(s) country-by-country, pair-by-pair assure that the same thing is being asked across diverse languages?

Yet another issue is how easily enumerators who speak the languages fluently, but have had little or no familiarity with the written forms of those languages can become competent in reading and administering questionnaires in them. Most if not all of the above languages have a written form, but some of these have had limited use - schools in Africa often focus uniquely on Europhone languages, and it's not uncommon to hear educated Africans say that they cannot read or write their mother tongue.

Finally, thinking about survey work in African languages generally, what might be the possibility of survey companies like Gallup and scholars doing academic research somehow sharing data on their translated questionnaires? Could this be useful towards developing terminologies for all future survey work, as well as for any attempts at analysis in languages of the surveyed?