Monday, August 13, 2018

Niamey 1978 & Cape Town 2018: 1. Some thoughts about extended Latin & content in African languages

Image features the 31 modified letters & diacritic combinations in
the African Reference Alphabet, 1978. (Nor all are currently in use.)

The world 40 years ago, when the Meeting of Experts on Transcription and Harmonization of African Languages took place in Niamey, and that of the Wikimania 2018 conference in Cape Town (which ended last month) seem very distant from each other. But from the angle of the written form of African languages at least, the concerns of the two events are not so distant.

One of these concerns is the extended Latin alphabets that were on the agenda in Niamey, and which are used in about half of the African language editions of Wikipedia. This post and the next consider these two vantage points, asking whether extended Latin is associated with less content creation, and what might be done to facilitate its use of the longer Latin alphabet.

Adapting the Latin script to African realities

In 1978, representatives of countries that had gained independence no more than a couple of decades earlier, or in some cases only a few years before, met in Niamey to advance work on writing systems for the first languages of the continent. One of the linguistic legacies of the colonial period was the Latin alphabet (even in lands where other systems had been used). But given the phonological requirements sometimes very different than what Latin letters represented in Europe, linguists added various modified letters, diacritics, and digraphs to write African languages (sometimes even a special system for a single publication1.

So, that legacy also often took the form of multiple alphabets and  orthographies for a single language, reflecting the different origins of European linguists (frequently Christian missionaries from different denominations), locations in which they worked (perhaps places where speakers of a language had particular dialects or accents), and individual skills and choices. After independence, many African countries undertook to simplify this situation, but they still often ended up with alphabets and spelling conventions different from those in neighboring countries.

The linguists and language specialists in Niamey, as in other such conferences of that era (many of which, like the one in Bamako in 1966, were supported by UNESCO), were concerned with further simplifying these discrepancies, with accurate and consistent transcription of languages that were for the most part spoken in two or more countries (whose speaker communities were divided by borders). That included adopting certain modified letters and diacritic combinations for sounds that were meaningfully significant in African languages (some of which correspond with characters in the International Phonetic Alphabet).

Language standardization, which is actually a complex set of decisions, was a real concern where there were on the one hand diverse peoples grouped in each state and on the other hand limited resources for producing materials and training teachers. At its most basic level, though, standardization of any sort required an agreed upon set of symbols and conventions for transcription.2

A reference alphabet for shared orthographies

The African Reference Alphabet (ARA)3 produced by the Niamey meeting was an effort in that direction. It built on the longer post-independence process to facilitate use and development of written forms of African languages - a process that had its roots in the early introduction of the Latin script (before the formal establishment of colonial rule) and efforts during the colonial period such as the influential (at least in the British colonies) 1928 Africa Alphabet. The ARA was intended - and to some degree at least still serves - as sort of a palette from which orthographies for specific linguistic, multilingual national, and cross-border language needs could be addressed.4

And that set of concerns - alphabets, orthographies and spelling conventions - turned out to be the starting point for later efforts in the context of information and communication technology (ICT) to localize software and interfaces, including Wikipedia and other Wikimedia interfaces, and to develop African language content online, including for Wikimedia projects. Even if it does not seem as visible as other challenges.

What I haven't seen is an evaluation of the efforts at Niamey and the other expert meetings on harmonization of transcriptions, although the most used of the characters in the ARA can be seen in various publications, and all but perhaps one are in the Unicode standard.

In any event. the situations of the various African languages are diverse, with some having well established corpora while others are "less-resourced," and in the worst case, inconsistently written.

Extended Latin and composing on digital devices

One important element in discussions in the process of which Niamey was part, was the role of modified letters - what are now called extended Latin characters - in transcribing many African languages. The ARA includes no less than 30 of them (22 modified letters and 8 basic Latin with diacritics5). These added characters and combinations are not intended to all be used in any one language, but represent standard options for orthographies. The incorporation of some of these into a writing of a single language makes the writing clearer, and has no drawbacks for teaching, learning, reading, or handwriting (although there are arguments against the use of diacritics). Since the establishment of Unicode for character encoding, the screen display of these characters is not a problem (so long as fonts have been created including glyphs for the characters).

However even the presence of even just one or two extended Latin characters leads to problems with standard keyboards and keypads - where are you going to place an additional character, and how is the user to know how to find it? This is a set of issues that was of course recognized back in the era of typewriters. One of the spinoffs from the Niamey conference was the 1982 proposal by Michael Mann and David Dalby (who attended the meeting) for an all lower-case "international niamey keyboard," which put all the modified characters (of an expanded version of the ARA) in the spots normally occupied by upper-case letters.

While that proposal never went far (I hope to return to the subject later) - due in large part to its abandonment of capital letters - it was but one extreme approach to a conundrum that is still with us. That is, how to facilitate input of Latin characters and combinations that are not part of the limited character sets that physical keyboards and keyboards are primarily designed for. It's not that there aren't ways of facilitating input - virtual keyboard layouts (keyboard drivers that can be designed like and shared, like Keyman, and onscreen keyboards) have been with us for years, and there are other input systems (voice recognition / speech-to-text being one). The problem is lack of standard arrangements and systems for many languages. Or perhaps in the matter of input systems, the old wag, "the nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from," applies.

The result, arguably, may be a drag on widespread use of extended Latin characters, and as a consequence of popular use on digital devices of languages whose orthographies include them. Or a choice to ASCIIfy text (using only basic Latin), as has been the case with Hausa on international radio websites. Or even confusion based on continued use of outdated 8-bit font + keyboard driver systems, as witnessed in at least one case with Bambara (see discussion and example).

What can the level of contributions to African language editions of Wikipedia tell us about the effect of extended Latin? This will be explored in the next post: Extended Latin & African language Wikipedias.

1. For example some works on forest flora which had lists of common names in major languages of the region.
2. Arguably in the case of a language written in two or three different scripts, one could have a system in each script and an accepted way to transliterate between or among them.
3. The only other prominent use I found of the term "reference alphabet" was that of the ITU for their version of ISO 646 (basically the same as ASCII): "International Reference Alphabet." The concept of reference alphabet seems to be a useful one in contexts where many languages are spoken and writing systems for them aren't yet established.
4. This approach - adopting a standard or reference alphabet for numerous languages - was taken by various African countries, for example Cameroon and Nigeria. These efforts were without doubt influenced by the process of which Niamey and the ARA were part.
5. By comparison, the Africa Alphabet had 11 modified letters and did not use diacritics. All 11 of the characters added in the Africa Alphabet were incorporated in the ARA. It is worth noting that in the range of modified letters / special characters created over the years, some are incorporated into many orthographies, others fewer, and some are rarely used if at all.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wikimania 2018: Sessions on, or of interest to, Wikimedia projects in African languages

The 14th annual Wikimedia conference - Wikimania 2018 - starts today, 18 July, in Cape Town, South Africa, and runs through 22 July. It is the second Wikimania to be held on the African continent - the first being at Alexandria, Egypt in 2008 - and the first in Africa south of the Sahara.

Here is a quick look from afar at what Wikimania 2018 sessions in the conference program might treat questions related to African language editions of Wikipedia, Wiktionary, etc. - what we have previously referred to as "Afrophone Wikis."


According to the program, the first two days - 18-19 July - are devoted to the Preconference, consisting of "various miniconferences and meetings." Among these, I'd make special note of the 2-day Decolonising the Internet Conference - "…the first ever conference about centering marginalized knowledge online!" Run by the NGO Whose Knowledge? (logo at right) as an invitation-only event, it has a theme that I'd consider of interest to increase African language presence on the internet.

Main conference

The main Wikimania conference follows, on 20-22 July. On the morning of the first day, Friday 20 July, there is a track devoted to Africa with three sessions, all of interest (titles link to project pages, which in some instances already have further links to slide presentations):
  • Babel's Tower: South Africa's Wikipedias: An overview and discussion of Wikipedia editions in South Africa's languages (focusing on the 11 official languages), and ways to address the poor development in most of those, including "possible interventions via both educational strategies and technological options." The presentation is by Michael Graaf, who wrote his dissertation at the University of Cape Town on South Africa's Wikipedias.
  • Africa's Wikipedias: "A panel to discuss the interesting challenges and possibilities of the Wikipedia language editions of Africa. Includes review of new tech to amplify efforts of editors." Panel includes several editors of African language Wikipedias (Afrikaans, Arabic, Swazi, Tsonga, and Xhosa).
  • The quotation of oral sources in a decolonization context: Discussion of how to incorporate oral citations in a resource that generally requires citation of written (ideally published) sources. Reference to an oral citations project in Namibia. Presentation by Bobby Shabangu and Stefanie Kastner.
That same morning, there is another session of particular interest from the perspective of working on African language projects (unfortunately conflicting with the Africa track):
 In the afternoon of the same day, another Africa-specific session that might have some content relevant to languages:
  • Coolest African Projects - Be inspired: Spotlights relatively unknown projects and activities by African Wikimedia affiliates. Presentation by Emna Mizouni, Felix Nartey, and User:Thuvack.
On the second day of the main conference, Saturday 21 July, the morning session has several sessions of special interest, including three in the Languages track:
  • Wikipedia for Indigenous Communities: Compares Western and OvaHerero (Namibia) approaches to knowledge, and discusses a project approaching Wiki editing in a way more acceptable to their community. Presented by Peter Gallert.
  • How majorities can support minority languages: Although description does not indicate Africa content, it deals with how people in positions of relative power (in this case speakers of dominant languages) can help those in positions of less power (speakers of "minority" languages) with their Wikipedia projects. Presentation by Jon Harald Søby, Astrid Carlsen, Jean-Philippe Béland, and User:Barrioflores.
  • Including minority languages in Wikimedia projects, a strategic approach: Again, no specific Africa content indicated, but a possibly relevant discussion of how to include minority languages in Wikimedia projects. Presentation by Ahmed Houamel-Bachounda.
Also in the morning, sessions dealing with Africa in the Education track (thus conflicting with the above), but without indication whether African language projects will be discussed, or just major Europhone language projects like English & French:
On the morning of the last day, Sunday 22 July, four sessions in the Communication track look interesting from the point of view of African language projects (even though none of these are specifically mentioned in the session descriptions except for the last one):
  • Working towards Growing Local Language Content on Wikipedia (GLOW): Discusses a 2017 collaboration among Wikimedia Foundation, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Wikimedia India chapter (WMIN), user groups and external partners on a "pilot project in India to encourage local Wikipedia communities to create locally relevant articles in Indian languages." The results will inform development of the GLOW program, which is explained. Presentation by Jack Rabah and Rupika Sharma.
  • Record every language of the world village by village, with Lingua Libre: Discusses project to facilitate "the recording process of words in any language (even minor languages or dialects), uploading them to Wikimedia Commons and reusing them on other projects such as Wiktionary, Wikipedia or Wikidata." Presentation by User:0x010C.
  • Every Language in the World: Introducing Wikitongues: Focuses "on the activities coordinated by Wikitongues, a not-for-profit organization promoting the use and preservation of every language in the world" through collection of oral histories. Presentation by Daniel Bogre Udell.
  • Diglossia and Multilingualism: A help or a Hindrance to Arabic Wikipedians?: Explores "the ways students who are native speakers of Arabic [which has a standard & many vernacular forms] in a multilingual educational system overcome the obstacle of sharing knowledge by using a common idiom while allowing millions of readers engage with the content they create. This session will also suggest solutions for communities with similar language challenges inspired by the educational model used in Arabic-speaking schools that participate in the 'Student Write Wikipedia' program." Presented by Bekriah S. Mawasi.
The above should not be interpreted as meaning that other sessions would not be of interest. This is a subjective selection based on my reading of the descriptions. On the whole it is nice to note the optimism in several cases, with regard to African language projects, and also the efforts to accommodate and integrate oral content and sources.

By coincidence, the timing of Wikimania 2018 corresponds with the 40th anniversary of the Niamey expert meeting on transcription and harmonization of African languages, so I'll draw some connections between the two seemingly very different events in the next post.

Note: The first two images above are from the webpages for the event (Wikimania 2018) or organization (Whose Knowldge?) concerned. Attribution of the third image can be found on the linked Wikimedia Commons page.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Expert Meeting on the Transcription & Harmonization of African languages, Niamey, 17-21 July 1978

Niger's National Assembly, where the 1978 meeting was
formally opened. (Source:
Forty years ago today, the Meeting of Experts on the Transcription and Harmonization of African Languages began in Niamey, Niger. Along with the 1966 meeting in Bamako, it was one of the more significant of a series of meetings* organized in Africa with the assistance of UNESCO to deal with questions relating to standardization of the written forms of African languages.

This expert meeting was at once less ambitious than the 1966 Bamako meeting - seeking "harmonization" rather than "unification" of systems for writing - and wider in scope - including representatives from more countries around the continent:Angola; Benin; Burundi; Cameroun; Central African Republic; Guinea Bissau; Ivory Coast; Mali; Niger; Rwanda; Senegal; Tanzania; Uganda; and Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] (some countries had more than one person). Plus France, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia. (Representatives from Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Zaire [now DR Congo] were not able to attend.)

This diversity also meant that the number and range of languages considered in Niamey was greater than in Bamako. On the other hand, like Bamako, the Niamey meeting focused only on the Latin-based transcriptions used in educational contexts (notably literacy) by the recently independent governments in sub-Saharan Africa.

This conference was particularly notable for its connection with the African Reference Alphabet, which was intended to provide a common character for each sound encountered in main African languages (rather than each country devising its own symbols or character combinations).

African Reference Alphabet. Source: Proceedings of the Meeting, UNESCO, 1981.
This alphabet was later amended by linguists David Dalby, who participated in the Niamey meeting, and Michael Mann, to include a number of additional characters. They also suggested a lower-case only alphabet,with a keyboard design using both registers to accommodate all the letters. (This keyboard was never adopted as such.)

 This effort was significant in influencing orthographies adopted for many languages (although not all). However it did not seem to be explicitly connected with the contemporaneously emerging digital text standards. Although many of the characters in ISO 6438 "African coded character set for bibliographic information interchange" were the same, there were differences that indicate the latter was the result of a separate process (or perhaps "fork" in today's software development terminology).

A few years ago I had hoped it would be possible to use the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Niamey expert meeting to organize a conference to review the status and influence of the African Reference Alphabet and its descendants - with particular attention to technical support in ICT - and issues related to non-Latin scripts used for African languages. And perhaps to broach other topics related to use of African languages in the spirit of the efforts of a half-century ago.

Perhaps such a conference will prove useful in the future, but for the moment I'll mark this 40th anniversary with a series of short posts on the 1978 Niamey expert meeting itself and/or contemporary efforts that in one way or another reflect its aspirations.

* Several other expert meetings during this period addressed more specific sets of issues.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A movie on the life of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther?

Bishop Crowther, 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1809-1891) was a remarkable figure in West African history, whose life bridged the end of the Atlantic slave trade era and the beginning of the period of European partition of the continent. Could his story be the basis of a major film production?

A compelling life story

Captured at age 12 or 13 in what is today Oyo State in southwest Nigeria, separated from his family, and sold into slavery, he was "recaptured" by a British anti-slaving force and eventually found his way back to his homeland and became prominent as a linguist and a member of the Anglican clergy (becoming in 1864 its first African bishop) in what was to become Nigeria. Towards the end of his life, however, this success collided with increasingly racist attitudes associated with the imposition of colonial rule.

This compelling story deserves more attention, and it is easy to imagine it being the subject of a major motion picture production. The idea is in no way new. From some contacts in Nigeria, notably Dr. Tunde Adegbola, and through him, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, I learned some years ago that there is interest in the production such a drama. There is at least one published dramatization of Crowther's life, a play focusing on his difficult later years, written by Prof. Femi Osofisan

Certainly the most dramatic episode in Crowther's life was the unexpected reunion with his mother in 1846, which he himself recounted in these words (as presented in an 1892 biography):
"August 21. The text for this day in the Christian Almanac, is 'Thou art the Helper of the fatherless.' I have never felt the force of this text more than I did this day, as I have to relate that my mother, from whom I was torn away about five-and-twenty years ago, came with my brother in quest of me. When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other with silence and great astonishment, big tears rolling down her emaciated cheeks. A great number of people soon came together. She trembled as she held me by the hand and called me by the familiar names by which I well remember I used to be called by my grandmother, who has since died in slavery. We could not say much, but sat still, and cast now and then an affectionate look at each other--a look which violence and oppression had long checked--an affection which had nearly been extinguished by the long space of twenty-five years. My two sisters who were captured with us, are both with my mother, who takes care of them and her grandchildren in a small town not far from here, called Absika. Thus unsought for--after all search for me had failed--God has brought us together again, and turned our sorrow into joy."
Although a figure of the 19th century, Crowther's life story resonates beyond that period so critical in African history. The theme of separation and reunion is universal and powerful. His encounter with some of the worst aspects of racism, which unfortunately is still a very present problem (it was not until 2014 that the Church of England finally apologized for the treatment he received). Crowther's efforts in the area of Christian-Muslim dialogue reflect an important ongoing process. And his work with African languages, particularly but not limited to his native Yoruba, have an ongoing influence.

Ajayi Crowther, translation, and transcription

Early in his time in what is now Sierra Leone, where he was settled after reacue by the British, Crowther took an interest in languages and linguistics. Aside from his mother tongue and the English he learned in Freetown, he also learned Temne. In the course of his education leading to clerical vocation, he learned Latin and Greek, which later were essential in translating the Bible into Yoruba. He also learned Igbo (and contributed to work on translating the Bible into that language), Hausa, (in the context of a trip to the north), Nupe (for which he also published a grammar and vocabulary), and Igalla (which is closely related to Yoruba).

Character combos for open-e, open-o, & /sh/
in Yoruba. The small line is the "classic" look;
a dot under seems more often used these days.
Apparently much of the early work on writing Yoruba in the Latin alphabet (an older Ajami transcription already exised, likely used mainly by Muslim Yorubas) was begun by missionaries in Freetown working with Yoruba speakers who had been settled there, and Crowther collaborated with them. The system Crowther used to write Yoruba, including marks under e and o to denote open vowel forms of them (the language having a 7-vowel system), presumably built on those early efforts. With some modifications, such as tone markings, that orthography is still in use today, a significant contribution to the written forms of African languages.

When back in what was to become Nigeria, Crowther worked on A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, (1852), which was apparently the first linguistic work published by an African. His translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Bible into Yoruba came later.

Ajayi Crowther's place in African history

Although I had learned some basics about Bishop Crowther in my limited study of and reading on African history over the years (it is relevant to my work, but not my field), I first took an interest in his story due to his role in establishing the Yoruba orthography.² I hadn't realized until later that opinions of his role in Nigerian and West African history varied. In Prof. Osofisan's words (from prefatory notes to his play):
"Crowther has been much vilified by African scholars and historians, who accuse him of having been merely a lackey to the white colonials. His work as a pioneering missionaery who travelled widely and extensively along the River Niger, establishing missions and, above all, putting up a staunch fight against slavery, is hardly even appreciated. Even his works as translator and scholar, who established schools in many parts of the mission, and worked out the first written alphabets and primers for not only Yoruba, but also Igalla and Igbo, is always glossed over."
Maybe it's time - already a few years after the Church of England's apology for what was done to him late in his career - to "rehabilitate" Bishop Crowther's image in history more generally, and to provide the current generation with a new perspective on a complex and influential life and life's work?

A film on the life of Ajayi Crowther

Crowther achieved several firsts, as a clergy in his adopted religion, and as a prominent early linguist specializing in African languages. He engaged with African cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. He was one of the first students at the famous Fourah Bay College. He personally experienced both slavery and the institutionalized racism of colonialism, but rose above them. He left a legacy that has perhaps been underappreciated.

So, could this story, to which the above sketch does not do full justice, be the basis for a major feature film production? One involving Nigerian and international producers and actors? Could it fully, accurately, and appropriately treat the linguistic aspects of the story?

The market is there for big Africa-themed productions - including ones in which African languages figure prominently. The action film Black Panther is a recent example. The 1997 historical drama Amistad did well. Language, transcription, and translation may seem like a harder sell, but the recent sci-fi film Arrival had linguistics as a central component of the plot.

Ethnic dimensions might need care to navigate. Crowther was obviously a Yoruba figure, but also spent formative years in the Creole community of Freetown, and later traveled and worked widely in what was to become Nigeria. The episode of his capture into slavery is said to have involved "Muslim Fulani" as well as eventually Portuguese slavers - so how to be historically accurate without feeding stereotypes should be a priority.³

The biggest challenges are that there is no script or even script treatment on the subject, and that research on the subject might yield more than one reasonable plot line to tell the story, with the potential for conflict between commercial imperatives (especially the bigger the production) and the importance of historical and linguistic accuracy, and sensitivity to the people groups treated.

So this post is intended to give a little more lift to an idea that merits consideration and, hopefully, action.

1. Femi Osofisan, Ajayi Crowther: The Triumphs and Travails of a Legend, Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2006. The play was first performed in Lagos in 2002.
2. This was about 10-15 years ago when I was focusing on support for African writing systems on computers and the internet.
3. There are currently reports of conflicts in Nigeria between herders, mainly Fulani (Fulɓe), and farmers of other ethnic groups, which have led to fatalities.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Access" itself is diverse: Typology & terminology

Two recent items - a tweet by the Office of the President of Niger touting greater internet access as a key to the digital development component its "Niger 2.0" program (below), and an announcement by IAB-South Africa (logo on right) of a campaign for free internet access in South Africa - raise anew questions about (1) what we mean by "access" in multilingual societies, especially in the service of development, and (2) how to clearly signify those meanings in ways that facilitate clear discussion, planning, and action.
In African Languages in a Digital Age (ALDA) I discussed how "access" in information and communication technology (ICT) may refer to many things, but then adopted a binary distinction between on the one hand "physical access," basically the having a functioning digital device with power and connectivity, and on the other hand "soft access," being the software and applications. In a multilingual society, localization (L10n) is, or at least logically should be, a major concern of soft access.

Nearly a decade later, the tendency still seems to be to treat access as one thing, focused on the technical or physical aspects of access (devices, connectivity), and leaving out L10n and a deeper consideration of how people in multilingual societies access and might interact with the technology. In the wake of the 2015 "Connectivity Declaration" and Facebook's initiative I discussed this problem at some length on this blog: "Access gap in the 'Connectivity Declaration'?"

What counts as "access"?

This gap in how we frame access is reflected in Wikipedia (English) articles relating in one way or another to access or to localization:
  • Internet access (corresponds roughly with physical access; no mention of software outside of network context or of L10n) & the "right to internet access" (the discussion of which is framed in terms of physical access, and doesn't broach linguistic rights; and the latter article for its part doesn't mention access to the internet or ICTs in general)
  • Computer accessibility & web accessibility ("accessibility" generally concerns people with disabilities)
  • Language access, linguistic accessibility, & variants (a set of terms not covered in Wikipedia, which have to do with a range of situations including, but definitely not limited to ICT and the internet; this terminology "sub-space" does not seem clear or well-elaborated)
  • Internationalization and localization & language localization (include processes leading to software and content in diverse languages, but does not mention access as a goal; in fact, the emphasis is more on reaching people with appropriate messages than it is in facilitating people's access and use of software and content)
  • Digital divide (makes specific reference to access, and only marginal mention of languages, but language of software/content is not clearly evoked as a factor in enhancing access to help bridge the divide; no mention of L10n)
  • ICT for development (ICT4D; references to access, with language mentioned as a consideration only in some ways that do not relate to access; a single mention of L10n)
It should be pointed out that these  Wikipedia articles do get editorial input from people who have some expertise in the topics covered, so while they may not be definitive, they offer a fair impression of thinking on these subjects.

The impression I get from reviewing these articles is that they show exactly the kind of gap between dominant use of "access" on the one hand, and the issues of access related to language on the other, that I had hoped to help bridge with ALDA and other writing.

The back story on "soft access"

When I first started looking at the dimensions of access to ICT in early 2000 - which was around the time of the Bamako 2000 "Internet: Bridges to Development" conference - I used the term "meaningful access" as distinguished from "physical access." This was intended in part to address the language dimension that was discussed at Bamako 2000 (its Plan of Action included "plurilingualism" among its 20 "essential activities"), but was largely overlooked in most of the early enthusiasm about how the internet was supposed to transform African development.

In later work on the PanAfrican Localisation project and the writing of ALDA, however, I instead used "soft access," a term borrowed from a TeleCommons Development Group report released in June 2000. I had a brief email correspondence with that NGO prior to the release of the report, but it is not clear whether or to what extent my input regarding types of access may have contributed to their thinking. In any event, their take on "soft access" (including as it did, attention to the issue of languages) seemed to capture the essence of what I was getting at. And their emphasis on software in defining soft access seemed productive in the context of localization I was dealing with in writing ALDA:
"software and applications which are designed to enable rural African users to utilize ICTs for their own needs and uses once the physical access has been established."

When it came time to translate ALDA into French, there was the question of how to translate "soft access." The resulting formulation - "accès logiciel" - is fine, but also shades the focus even more explicitly toward software and apps. (The translation adopted for "physical access" in Les langues africaines à l'ère du numérique is "accès matériel.")

Return to "meaningful access"? Or, "real access"?

In the years since, I have occasionally wondered if I should have stayed with "meaningful access," for a harder insistence on the linguistic and cultural dimension of access to technology. And more recently whether in fact that term and soft access might not better be thought of as two distinct but complementary access issues addressed by localization: content and interface.

Meaningful access, however, is a term that can be understood - and indeed is used - in ways that don't deal with language or even content. For example, meaningful access might simply refer to the quality of physical access (which would not be meaningful to have if, say, safety or noise were problems). One recent article on helping African women and girls to get online discusses "meaningful access to the internet" in broad terms that also encompass what I've been calling physical access (although it did not mention language):
"having a good, affordable connection and then being able to use it in a way that makes sense for you."

So, perhaps meaningful access might be a useful umbrella term, covering all aspects of "access" that might be left out if the sole focus is very narrowly on hardware and connections. But that doesn't get us too far in a context where language too easily is left on the margins of the discourse.

In this broader use, meaningful access reminds of the "real access" heading used in the early 2000s by (an early ICT4D NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa & Washington, DC, US; logo on left) in recognition that access "goes beyond just physical access and makes it possible for people to use technology effectively to improve their lives".

However, Bridges broke this broad category down into 12 "determining factors in whether or not people have Real Access to ICT" sketches out the environment in which organizations like IAB in South Africa or the government of Niger might try to increase "access" to the internet and ICTs more broadly (even if such organizations are not thinking about it that way). Language is explicitly mentioned only under #5 "relevant content," but a range of linguistic factors are relevant under several others (see my comments below on nos. 2, 4, 6, & 7; I've highlighted their & my uses of language or languages):
  1. Physical access. Is technology available and physically accessible?
  2. Appropriate technology. What is the appropriate technology according to local conditions, and how people need and want to put technology to use? [Comment: Software / apps localized in locally/regionally-important languages and, where needed, appropriate fonts & input systems can also be considered appropriate tech in this context.]
  3. Affordability. Is technology access affordable for people to use? 
  4. Capacity. Do people understand how to use technology and its potential uses? [Comment: User skills including knowledge of languages and basic literacy are relevant here.]
  5. Relevant content. Is there locally relevant content, especially in terms of language
  6. Integration. Does the technology further burden people's lives or does it integrate into daily routines? [Comment: Is tech less burdensome & more easily integrated to the extent it "speaks" the language(s) of daily use in the community?]
  7. Socio-cultural factors. Are people limited in their use of technology based on gender, race, or other socio-cultural factors? [Comment: Linguistic factors, including lack of appropriate language of interface options would presumably fall under this item.]
  8. Trust. Do people have confidence in and understand the implications of the technology they use, for instance in terms of privacy, security, or cybercrime? 
  9. Legal and regulatory framework. How do laws and regulations affect technology use and what changes are needed to create an environment that fosters its use? 
  10. Local economic environment. Is there a local economy that can and will sustain technology use?
  11. Macro-economic environment. Is national economic policy conducive to widespread technology use, for example, in terms of transparency, deregulation, investment, and labour issues? 
  12. Political will. Is there political will in government to do what is needed to enable the integration of technology throughout society? 
In fact, language and L10n in the access equation can also be affected by economic and policy considerations (nos. 10-12). Language is indeed a factor, and used of languages are conditioned by, almost anything that involves communication and knowledge. (This could lead into a discussion of "localization ecology," but I'll save that for another time.)

It is very useful when discussing access to technology (internet or ICTs in general) to spread out the subject, as it were, and to see how it might be disaggregated into specific concerns for specific attention, such as what Bridges did. I'm not currently aware of other similar efforts.

What about "linguistic access"? Or the "last inch"?

So why not just identify "linguistic access" as a key component in a broader "meaningful" or "real" access that goes beyond the usual focus on physical access? That thought occurred, but in the original dichotomy between physical and meaningful access, the latter was intended to go a bit beyond just language, much as L10n also is also concerned with more than just translation.

In a redo of Bridge's approach, one might call out linguistic access as a need addressed by localized software / apps and interface. And also localized content, perhaps still under "relevant content," meaning content created in, and/or translated into relevant languages.

A completely different way to refer to linguistic access is the "last inch" metaphor introduced by Dwayne Bailey and the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc; logo on right) a decade ago. The idea here is explicitly the language of software and interfaces (and content). However the term always seemed to be used only in the sense of "last inch limitations" and "last inch barriers," thus falling into the same trap of discussing lack of a common language first in negative terms that I've discussed elsewhere.* After all, the whole point of L10n is to bridge that "last inch" and thus facilitate linguistic access. Maybe "last-inch opportunities" or "bridging that last inch" to full access?

Wait - access for what?

Maybe part of the reason that the concepts and terms seem hard to settle on is that there is a deeper question that needs to be answered first: Access for what? Bridges discussed people using tech effectively "to improve their lives."'s "Internet for all" site, home of the Connectivity Declaration), says "Internet Access is Essential for achieving humanity's potential." These are broad well-intentioned goals - everything will be better with access to ICTs, or more specifically the internet. But what exactly is the vision of what people will do with access that will yield such vaguely wonderful outcomes?

Most examples of use of the internet on site Internet for All (which by the way makes no mention of L10n for access or of languages at all outside of a few translated versions of the Connectivity Declaration) relate to consumption of information and e-commerce. No problem as far as those go - they are important. But is access for all really about increasing markets?

In other words, in what vision of access to technology would linguistic diversity not be important? Is it one where people participating in a market for info and goods are really only those speaking a small range of dominant or "elite" languages? Is our current discussion of "access to the internet" really prioritizing certain uses and certain linguistic and cultural priorities?

I pose such questions as a proponent of greater access to ICTs (powered in part by better provisions for use in more languages). One of the dimensions I see as fundamental is the creation of content which while globally accessible, might be local or regional in relevance. Such non-mainstream perspectives may be as important for global learning as they would be for cultural/linguistic survival and development.

Even if the terminology about types of access might be hard to pin down, and even contested, it is essential to begin with acknowledgement that "access" to the internet and ICTs in general is not one thing and needs to be considered from several angles including languages, whether in Niger, in South Africa, or anywhere else.

* For example the discussions at the end of "Breaking the 'dialect barrier'" or on my other blog, "Reimagining 'language barrier'."

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Hoping to resume regular posting here soon. Have been busy with other concerns and other projects.

There is always much to write about concerning a topic as wide and interesting as the one this blog attempts to address - African languages in the information society.* Which is to say that there are numerous active topics and trends at any given time, as well as a few older but enduring issues, and usually more than one angle to approach each. Many of these are, I believe (as a non-African), important to discuss in the public space. Some are just fun to explore.

Blogging is, in my experience at least, a peculiar kind of writing exercise. It is neither journalistic nor academic in any formal sense. And with a few exceptions like the present post, I am not that comfortable with it slipping into the zone of entirely personal reflection, like an online diary or journal. But it can have elements of all three (newsiness, scholarship, and personality).

Writing regularly on Beyond Niamey, which I only did for brief periods until the 3 years from late 2014 to late 2017, both consumes time and energy, and generates energy. Time is the critical limiting factor in that equation, as it must of course be shared with other important activities.

There is also another limiting factor that intervenes periodically in any creative enterprise, and that is when the perpetual motion machine of writing both taking and generating energy just needs a break. I don't want to make too much of that, since this is only a blog (or actually one of two I write), and not a major writing project, but it is real. Part of that relates to re-tuning the vision - after writing a while you are not in the same place, of course, and you may not even be along the same line you had imagined when setting out. Some ideas in the hopper, as it were, don't seem to have the same allure or urgency. Some others do, but also require a lot more time than available, and a few of those because issues are complex (and not so easily divided into bite-sized portions). Time for reflection is needed.

But often intervening factors - the need to attend to other matters - are are the main reason for pauses in the blog. Most recently those included some personal transitions (including a move) and other writing projects (more about those another time).

Current plans (this is 2018)

Without committing myself to too much at this point (never good to overpromise), my hope is to post some short items and then to bring out some longer pieces that have been in draft for shorter or longer periods.

On the latter, for me writing, and the researching that goes into it, inevitably generates tangential avenues. Sometimes those are of sufficient interest to pursue at least to a certain point, with the hopes of bringing them to a conclusion. Some "present" themselves at a later opportune time (serendipity to have begun work already), but others require deliberate intent and effort to locate, resituate, and complete (have quietly doing this with a few side projects over the last couple of years).

Another need that others have brought up as a question at various points, is to return to various items in African Languages in a Digital Age (ALDA), in particular those discussed in the conclusion. That issue, and the future of ALDA as a book, are matters to discuss in another post.

Finally, a major consideration that is that this year, 2018, marks 40 years since the 1978 Niamey conference on transcription and harmonization of African languages. I had hoped that a follow-on meeting could be organized this year, but that did not work out. So I would like to take some time to consider the meaning of that meeting (and the series of expert meetings it was part of) for the future of written African languages.

* I interpret "African languages" fairly narrowly, and "information society" fairly broadly. That is, languages native or "indigenous" to Africa, including creoles, and those "indigenized" by generations of use by African populations (specifically Afrikaans, Arabic, and Malagasy). Europhone languages established on the continent, and languages brought from other regions are of secondary interest. In other words, the linguistic focus is more "African languages" than "languages of Africa." As for "information society," one could argue that that describes the contemporary condition anywhere, at least indirectly if not directly.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

International Mother Language Day 2018

This year's International Mother Language Day (IMLD), observed as always on February 21, is focusing on multilingualism and linguistic diversity, with mention of their importance for sustainable development and peace.

I would like to share the UNESCO director's message for IMLD, which makes some important points about why mother languages, linguistic diversity, and multilingualism are worth our attention in schooling, technology, and public life in general. With the mention of multilingualism, these points seem very relevant to the situations in African countries.

First, it important to remember that while UNESCO plays a central role in the annual observance of IMLD, having brought it to an international event from one originating in Bangladesh, IMLD is most importantly an occasion for local, national and regional communities around the world to celebrate the "unity in diversity" of human languages, beginning with those we first learn in families and communities. I hope it will be possible soon to compile some examples of IMLD events across Africa - or pass on the references if someone else takes that task on. 

Message from Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2018

Today, UNESCO marks the nineteenth International Mother Language Day. This is an opportunity to recall our Organization’s commitment to defending and promoting languages. 

A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life. 

In order to preserve and vitalize this essential component of the intangible heritage of humanity, UNESCO has been actively engaged for many years in the defence of linguistic diversity and the promotion of multilingual education. 

This commitment concerns mother languages in particular, which shape millions of developing young minds, and are the indispensable vector for inclusion in the human community, first at the local level, then at the global level.

UNESCO thus supports language policies, particularly in multilingual countries, which promote mother languages and indigenous languages. It recommends the use of these languages from the first years of schooling, because children learn best in their mother language. It also encourages their use in public spaces and especially on the Internet, where multilingualism should become the rule. Everyone, regardless of their first language, should be able to access resources in cyberspace and build online communities of exchange and dialogue. Today, this is one of the major challenges of sustainable  development, at  the  heart of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, and with it goes part of our human history and cultural heritage. Promoting multilingualism also helps to stop this programmed extinction. 

In the wonderful words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. On the occasion of this international day, UNESCO invites its Member States to celebrate, through a variety of educational and cultural initiatives, the linguistic diversity and multilingualism that make up the living wealth of our world.