Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Multilingual extension in Africa: Framing the contexts

This post continues the discussion about multilingual extension and public education responses to emergencies where there are many languages from the previous post about the response to the West African ebola epidemic, with a look at general lessons and strategies.

Multilingual marketing & multilingual extension

There is a lot of information available about multilingual marketing aimed mainly at commercial users, and often with a focus on web content, for example on blogs and news sites (Business 2 Community, Business News Daily, ClickZ, Mention, Search Engine Journal), and corporate sites (ADAM, Ecoconsultancy, Lionbridge, MarketingProfs). Part of the pitch in these pieces is that most people base decisions like purchasing on information in their principal language, and most people do not speak English. Hence the need to localize messages, involving primarily translation but also attention to cultural norms and sensibilities. Multilingual marketing strategies allow a message to reach a linguistically diverse population - no mystery there. Most of the focus of such discussion, however, is on parts of the world with lucrative markets and good connectivity - much of the global North plus dynamic urban centers globally.

Although one can certainly tap such advice for information relevant to a range of situations, there is not any comparable font of advice that I'm aware of focused on strategies for extension, development communication, public health education, or messaging relating to crises in the multilingual global South, including Africa. These regions tend to have less disposable income and less connectivity than in the global North. And large numbers of their populations, if not majorities, speak languages that may be at once "less-resourced" in technical and literary senses, absent from school curricula or taught only in the first couple of grades, and given lower in status than that accorded the main European, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages.

The relative lack of prioritization of African language messaging by international entities involved in the ebola response can be seen in this context.

Understanding African linguistic realities

Planning for use of diverse languages in extension and public education, or even just accepting that it is worthwhile, requires understanding the "linguistic terrain," which may be defined as including information about the languages spoken (what they are and how they are related), the linguistic demography (who speaks what in what areas), and relevant sociolinguistic factors (how various languages are used, status of languages, etc.). Understanding the linguistic terrain, in turn, requires attention to specifics, and may be facilitated by models or "frameworks" which put such specifics into perspectives useful for action.

For instance, figures on the number of languages spoken in a country are readily accessed, and not infrequently these elicit in foreigners the impression of a kind of Babel, too complicated to deal with beyond maybe assuring there is local staff able to interpret as needed (else just relying on ad hoc interpretation in the field). Beyond the numbers, the names may be unfamiliar, issues of who speaks what where and when not understood, the close relationship of some sets of languages with different names unknown, and there's always someone ready to offer a rationale for not bothering with African languages.

In approaching the multiplicity of languages in multilingual African countries, the first task is getting past the numbers, to put some identity to the names, and then to frame some understanding of how they are (and could be) used, by whom, where, and when.

Hierarchies, relationships, and priorities

The simplest and easiest framework in which to approach linguistic diversity in Africa - which arguably the default understanding for many - is a hierarchy in which the "Europhone" international languages are higher, and "local languages" are lower. That could be on the basis of several factors - elite status, career and education opportunities, existence of written and digital resources, number of speakers globally - but not others - mother tongue status, cultural content, number of speakers locally/regionally.
Classes of development of a linguistic variety proposed by Kloss (1978),
as quoted in Mioni (1988). Source: Guerini (2006:33)

The diagram at the right, adapted from work by Heinz Kloss, illustrates what such a hierarchy might look like (though I'm interpreting it here for purposes different than it was proposed). In many African countries, a Europhone official languages is #1 in such a ranking (Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Swahili might also be considered here), and most other languages are down the scale (per the diagram, they all would be nos. 4-6).

Such a simple hierarchy may have utility for description, but also has limitations - perhaps notably in confirming biases. It is probably not a good guide for communication strategies.

Hierarchy of  languages in de Swaan's (2001) theory. Source:
Wikimedia Commons, By Jqho1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
A hierarchical approach proposing a system of relations was Abram de Swaan's global language system theory (developed across several publications culminating in a 2001 book). He considered languages as forming a network of "constellations," each having more central and more peripheral languages. De Swaan's system adopts the core-periphery paradigm of world system theory, and includes arguments from history and a mathematical model for the communicative value of a language (Q-value). A more complete discussion of his work is beyond the scope of this post, but for our purposes, the model has been widely influential.

Source: Calvet (2006:76)
Among those referencing De Swaan, Louis-Jean Calvet (1999, 2006) explored how this approach works and may change in several regions. In one African case - Mali - it is clear that some languages do not fit simply into a hierarchical system of constellations (in a different discussion, we'd be calling many of these "cross-border languages," although the limits of constellations do not follow country boundaries).

In general the constellation approach seems most useful when analyzing the global or broad regional systems, and may not be helpful in communication strategies that require dissemination of messages in what are framed as peripheral languages.

Rough long-tail distro of 1st+2nd languages in Mali
A different approach that I have discussed previously (in general and in the case of Mali) uses the observation that numbers of speakers of languages as a rule follow a long-tail distribution. This is true at any scale, but the languages at the head of the distribution at more local levels may be different than those at a regional or country levels. This is not necessarily better than the constellation approach, but it does offer a different understanding of data that suggests different priorities. Arguably when a crisis such as ebola is most critical in certain localities, awareness of the language distributions on those local levels might be important for effective messaging there.

Types of African language repertoires in Mioni (1988).
Source: Guerini (2006:30-32) (combined 3 figures)
Since linguistic demographics and language policies differ by country it is also important to look at the organization of languages at that level. Alberto Mioni (1988) proposed three language profiles common in African countries: 1) a typical one with a "high language" (HL), usually an "exolanguage," what I have been calling Europhone languages, a national lingua franca, and local languages; 2) having two HLs, a developed national standard and an exolanguage, along with local languages; and 3) with local standard unavailable/undeveloped, and just the HL and local languages. These are simplifications, and like the hierarchical models above, they broadly minimize smaller languages that may be important locally, but they may provide a context for application of another analysis like the long-tail.

The reason for reviewing the above is that taken together, they might be used as alternative "framing" of a given sociolinguistic situation to arrive at a better understanding for planning purposes. That is, while studying the specifics of what languages are spoken in a country is essential (especially for foreigners working there), having diverse conceptual tools to understand the communication environment may be key to appropriate and successful messaging.

Leveraging the global networks of local languages

Due to emigration, there are communities of speakers of many African languages in diverse parts of the world. In other contexts (such as African language Wikipedias) it has been pointed out that these communities may be resources for development of materials.

In the case of epidemics that take on global dimensions, it may be possible to link multilingual messaging approaches between countries where a language is spoken natively, and communities of speakers in other countries (emigrants, diaspora). When fear of a wider ebola epidemic was at its height, the issue of translation was brought up in the US, for example, but apparently without making this link.

Taking multilingual extension to another level

The above is hardly comprehensive, but seeks to outline conceptual approaches to use in strategies for messaging in multilingual Africa, in emergencies like the ebola epidemic, but also general development communication. The previous post on lessons from the response to ebola, reviewed some specific issues. Taken together they are intended to promote discussion leading to more effective and appropriate use of African languages in a range of public education and development contexts.

  • Louis-Jean Calvet, 2006, Towards and Ecology of World Languages, Polity Press. (Translated by Andrew Brown from 1999, Pour une écologie des langues du monde, Plon)
  • Federica Guerini, 2006, Language Alternation Strategies in Multilingual Settings: A Case Study: Ghanaian Immigrants in Northern Italy, Peter Lang.
  • Heinz Kloss, 1978, Problems of Language Policy in South Africa, Braumüller.
  • Alberto Mioni, 1988, "Standardization Processes and Linguistic Repertoires in Africa and Europe: Some Comparative Remarks," in Peter Auer and Aldo di Luzio, eds., Variation and Convergence: Studies in Social Dialectology, Walter de Gruyter.
  • Abram de Swaan, 2001, Words of the World: The Global Language System, 1st ed., Polity Press.


Anonymous said...

Hi Don, it's some time since we had a bout of correspondence re Ebola(ng). We - a bunch of mostly (except me) young scholars, incl.Mohomodou Houssouba - are preparing a booth on Language equity and sustainable development at the Research Fair on invitation by the central Swiss research agency SDG 2030, destined to help shape policies and practices. http://www.naturwissenschaften.ch/organisations/kfpe/68108-pathways-to-transformation---research-fair-on-the-agenda-2030.
Your page on Multilingual extension - Framing the context is a track not to miss, and we will minimally include a reference (given limited time and space).
Optimally, we would like to be able to suggest a language use research module to enclosed as standard in planning for implementation of all goals. So, for instance, if there was a case study illustrating the long tail hypothesis, or some further elaboration on it, it would be great to have it and your permission to use it. Thanks Thomas Bearth

Don said...

Thanks Thomas. I'm glad to help in whatever way possible. I'll follow up via email, but in the meantime, you all are welcome to use any material from the blog that you find useful (to facilitate sharing I have all content under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license, 4.0). Unfortunately I don't know of any case study on the use of the long tail analysis. It would be interesting to explore the Malian situation in more depth using and comparing Calvet's model (which specifically references Mali) and my quick illustration of the long-tail (with it's example from Mali). The latter needs updating - the population figures are out of date now, and some of the language info can also be updated. More offline...

Thomas Bearth said...

Thanks for the quick reply, Don. I may come back to you when there is REAL news from our side. Meanwhile, it's good to know where we can find all that's been done (in addition to your book). Thank's for sharing. tb