Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Applied linguistics for development workers?

In an article last January in The Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network, Maria May suggests "Six resolutions for aid workers" in 2015: 1. Be the best manager ever; 2. Read; 3. Write; 4. Spend more time in the field [i.e., don't let it slide down the list of priorities]; 5. Walk the walk [development "organizations need to exemplify the change that they are trying to make in society"]; and 6. Renew yourself.

I'd like to suggest a 7th resolution for 2015 - never too late to improve practice - which is particularly important in multilingual contexts commonly encountered in development work in Africa: Be a little bit of a linguist. What I mean by that is to pay attention to what languages are used and might be used, and how, in all levels of development work - especially on the level of beneficiaries and their communities.

Language, of course, is key to communication, which is central to extension, learning, and collaborative planning and action. And when many languages are used in a community, communication in development becomes more complex, choice of languages becomes a factor, and several social and linguistic issues come into play:
  1. Participation: Who's talking? Who's not talking (or understanding)? These are issues even in monolingual communities, but where more than one language is spoken, try to observe what the use of or shift among languages means in terms of who does and doesn't participate fully - or at all. Typically use of an elite language or a language spoken by a majority in the community will favor people in leadership positions. Choice of language may reflect power as much as a desire to reach the most people. 
  2. Gender: Related to the previous point, what do women speak and not speak? Women tend not to have as many languages as men, due to lack of formal education of girls, as well as to the opportunities even unschooled men have to travel and interact with speakers of other language speakers in their region (and beyond). Try to get an idea of what languages women use in homes, community, and local markets, and what gaps there may be for their direct communication with government, extension agencies, development projects, school staff, etc.
  3. Interpretation: Where it is necessary to work across more than one language, what is the quality of rendition in the target language(s)? If you don't speak the target language you have to trust the interpreters who do, but don't do so blindly. You may have seen a spoof of movie subtitles where an actor speaks a long piece and the subtitle has one or two words - be alert to shortcut summaries and query the interpreter when s/he gives you one.* In 2010 I sat in on a training of community animal health workers in Moroto, Uganda, who requested a change of interpreter to one who had better command of relevant vocabulary in Karamojong language. If there had not been that alternative, what might have been lost in translation? Check to be sure of the interpreter's confidence in the technical topic(s) being discussed before putting them on the spot to translate for you.
  4. Translation: Can you bring talking points translated in the target language to the field? At its most basic level, interpretation is oral and translation written, but development work rarely involves the latter when "local languages" are involved. Yet "pre-translating" key concepts and terminology might be helpful as aids to ensure good interpretation and reduce "slippage" in conveying information. Translation is also a key to localizing ICT4D (see below).
  5. Local extension agents: What languages do they speak? I've remarked in the past that a US Peace Corps volunteer may get more language training in one week than the average local extension or development worker gets in an entire career. That may not seem to matter much if they speak the local languages, but even when they do, there is no support to assure the quality of technical expression in those tongues, and very likely such workers are not literate in them (if their formal education was uniquely in a Europhone official language). And often it is the case that local extension workers may be posted in a region of their country where a language(s) they are not so familiar with are spoken
  6. Local radio: What languages do they use? In my experience in West Africa, community radio stations split their programming among whatever languages are spoken by people living within their broadcast radius. With expertise across languages (including finding ways to express new concepts in them), the staff of a station in an area where you are working could be a valuable partner for both for understanding the sociolinguistic profile of the area and for messaging to reach all groups.
  7. ICT4D: Applications, software, and content that do not respond to the linguistic realities of the population will have a limited utility - or utility for a limited number of people. Localization (L10n) involves translation and adaptation to local culture and communication. Projects in information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) and efforts to develop L10n in the same countries would seem to be natural allies with complementary interests, but it may be up to the better funded ICT4D projects to reach out to make this connection.
One by one, such issues may make perfect sense, but even when taken together, the reasons for attention to language as a factor in development have not led to a real understanding of the role of languages in development, or what we might do better in multilingual contexts - and with less-resourced languages - to improve practice and outcomes.

The link between language and development is "largely ignored" according to Ekkehard Wolff. Robert Chaudenson has suggested that the subject of language is "taboo" in development work in Africa. And Birgit Brock Utne noted that foreign donors have a negative view of African multilingualism. This is a problem and we can do better.

* An episode of interpretation recorded on video in southern Afghanistan, with translated subtitles, is an example of shortcuts or just bad interpretation. There are other dynamics going on in the video, but the segment about midway through with the local elder is worth viewing.

On a similar topic: "Back again. Gates, Rockefeller & African languages" 14 Sep 2006.


Matthew Heberger said...

Fantastic post! Hope that it is widely read and taken to heart by anyone working with people who may speak a different language.

Don said...

Thank you Matt. Please feel free to disseminate as appropriate. I'm also wondering whether it would be useful to develop these ideas further into some sort of manual for development planners and practitioners.