Friday, July 05, 2019

A life lesson in Fulfulde & the internal voices of a multilingual

After another hiatus in posting here, will begin again. More on all that below, but I wanted first to take the opportunity to share a couple of short items relating to my experience with some African languages.

"God knows his friends..."

I still remember a particular session of Fulfulde instruction in Moribabougou, Mali, back in 1983. As in all Peace Corps language classes - whatever the country, it seems - we were seated in a small hut, big enough for maybe 4-5 people plus a blackboard. On the particular day I'm remembering, someone passed behind the hut - nothing extraordinary in that given the layout of the training facilities beween the village and the school. Our instructor, Mady Kamanta, asked "Giɗo Alla?" Literally, "Friend of God?" which is actually a kind of "Who goes there?" The unseen person answered "Ko min, __" (and his name), basically, "It's me, ___." It was a village elder.

Short greetings followed and after the elder had gone, Mady said that the proper way to answer "Giɗo Alla?" was actually something like "Alla anndi giɗo mun. Min ko ___." Basically, God knows who's his friend. I'm ___." (I think it could also have been "Alla anndi yiɗɓe mun..." - "God knows his friends...")

A simple turn of phrase but a whole culture behind it. In pulaaku or pulaagu (basically Fula culture*), to the extent I can claim to understand it, there is a certain amount of humility and avoidance of presumption. (But as in any culture, I find there's also duality in which one sometimes encounters the apparent opposite.)

By the response you not only know the identity of the person, but also get a measure of them. In Moribabougou that day, the elder was a Bambara, and however wise he may gave been, or steeped in the context of Manding language and culture he was, could not be expected to have mastered all the nuances of a second or third language. So without knowing anything more about him, you'd learn something just from his response. From my later (and admittedly still limited) experience with varieties of Fula, I recall there were other small ways in which native speakers of the language (especially in central Mali) would test your knowledge in it.

As a turn of phrase, the "proper" form of response to "Giɗo Alla?" is is a great example of answering a question while deftly stepping aside from the premise of the question (whether implicit as in this case, or explicit, as perhaps in the case of some forms of argument). Something potentially useful in many contexts and cultures.

So for some reason I recalled this recently - which does not mean I had forgotten it in the meantime - and thought I'd share it here.

The words that come to mind (multilingual version)

A recent article on multilingualism and perception (published in June 2019 in On Biology then in slightly revised version in Psychology Today) had me thinking of the internal verbal generation in response to stimuli. That is, the words that come to mind in diverse situations, when one speaks more than one language. In my case those are sometimes words or phrases in Fula or Bambara (which are very different from each other).

Here I don't mean the kind of code-switching you do when speaking, and a word in a different language just says it better (or maybe you didn't know the term in the language of the conversation). I'm referring to the internal voice when you think of something or react to a situation. Occasionally the words I think of in certain situations are not in my first, or even second (French), language.

I'm assuming this must be common among multilinguals, but am not aware of any research on it. The closest I've seen as a non-specialist in linguistics relates to the perception of sounds, and how one interprets those as meaningful utterances, as mentioned for example in the article linked above.

Multilingualism is of course more common than monolingualism, but since linguistics and psychology arose in monolingual (sub)cultures, multilingual experience is described somewhat incompletely, and treated as if it were somehow unusual.

One would hope that as African research and scholarship in these areas becomes more prominent, multilingualism will be treated more as the norm, and monolingualism as the exception.

15 years of Beyond Niamey

Since I began this blog as an experiment in January 2004, there have been periods where I've written more often, and periods where I've posted nothing. A year ago - last summer here in the northern hemisphere - I anticipated a more substantial "reboot" than actually happened (the linked post - which opens in a new tab - is still a good statement of my current thinking on this blog, aside from the 2018-specific section, and blogging in general, which I've come to appreciate more with time).

One additional factor, which has always been in the background, but I've been thinking about more lately, is the question of what are the appropriate angles for a non-African to write about African languages and the "information society." This question is, frankly, the source of some doubt the deeper I get into it.

African languages are part of my life, for reasons perhaps apparent from the above, but which I'll discuss further in a subsequent post. However none of them are my language in the senses of mother tongue or cultural heritage. So as much as I may have my opinions, I also try to maintain a sense of propriety and humility. As I see it now, that allows focus on asking questions, making comparisons, and sharing information, ideas, and observations.

Readers are invited to follow critically as this blog evolves.

* Pulaaku is a somewhat complicated topic, often presented as the "Fula way" and comprised of several key attributes or behaviors. One summary posted on the web offers a list (although they had trouble with the hooked letters - "neaaaku," "aum," and "enaam" should be "neɗɗaaku," "ɗum," and "enɗam"). In an academic article entitled "L'image des Fulbe : Analyse critique de la constgruction du concept de pulaaku," Anneke Breedveld and Mirjam De Bruijn argue that the meanings of pulaaku vary by region, and perhaps our understanding of a single concept (and Fula people) is derived from foreign scholarship. In this, as much as in variation of the language, I tend to think that there are core concepts that are drawn from and interpreted variously, and that these interpretations don't represent divergence so much as dynamics. In the realms of ideas and identity, these dynamics could also mean convergence.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

IMLD 2019 & IYIL 2019 in Africa

On this International Mother Language Day 2019 (IMLD 2019), which has as its theme "Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation," a question: What are "indigenous languages" in Africa?

The question arises also since we are over a month into the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL 2019), an observation declared by the United Nations General Assembly in its 2016 resolution on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The purpose of the IYIL 2019 as stated in that resolution (under #13) is:

"to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels"

I won't propose a definitive answer as to what counts as "indigenous language" as my understanding is that the themes of IMLD and IYIL are inclusive, but it seems to be an important issue to think about in the interests of encouraging wide participation in Africa.

With that in mind, it is worth noting that the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) calls for "Celebration of South African languages" in the context of IYIL 2019. Also of interest is that the January-February issue of the UNESCO Courier, themed "Indigenous Languages and Knowledge (IYIL 2019)," has an article on the Mbororo people of Chad, whose mother tongue is a variety of Fula (Fulfulde/Pulaar) - a language that originated in a region far to the west.

Some of the broader issues concerning indigenous languages of Africa I hope to come back to in a following article, but in the meantime wishing all a happy IMLD 2019!

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Writing Bambara wrong & a petition to VOA

Why does the Voice of America (VOA) Bambara service's web content use a frenchized transcription of Bambara while Radio France International (RFI) uses the Bambara orthography?

Screenshot from page on VOA Bambara website. In Bambara orthography:
Jamana tigi: Ibrahima Bubakar Keyita ye Sankura foli kɛ ka ɲɛci jamana
denw ma. (Presidential New Year's address to the people of the country)
This question comes to mind in light of a petition being circulated by the Cercle Linguistique Bamakois asking that VOA follow the Bambara orthography on its web presence. (An English version of the petition is included at the end of this post.)

According to Sam Samake, a language specialist in Bamako, VOA's rationale for its current approach is to reach a large number of listeners who do not read or write Bambara in the official orthography,1 but who have been schooled in the French language system. In the view of Dr. Coleman Donaldson, a researcher on Manding languages (which include Bambara), this is part of a pattern of disregard for the spelling and orthographic conventions adopted by the Malian government and used now in many in primary schools.2 (This system happens also to harmonize with orthographies of neighboring countries due to the process that included the Bamako 1966 and Niamey 1978 conferences.)

Use or non-use of African language orthographies - and implications of respect or disrespect that accompany that choice - is not at all a new discussion. Coleman has a more recent examination of the broader problem as it appears in Mali, in a book chapter:3
"In a context where there is no shortage of people trained in official Bamanan orthography, the fact that the multinational telecommunications firm Orange fails to respect the official conventions is not simply a case of shoddy work; it is in fact part of the message."
Screenshot from RFI Mandenkan homepage. (Days & times of broadcasts).
In fact, as Sam pointed out, Malian government personnel, including for example everyone in the national broadcasting service, ORTM, have been trained in this orthography.1 So it does not appear at all accidental that major international entities like VOA and Orange opt to write Bambara as they please.

In this context, it is interesting to note RFI's decision on "Mandenkan" web content. Mandenkan, or Manding, is a group of largely interintelligible languages including Bambara (or Bamanankan) in the Mande family. RFI uses what looks like Bambara in the proper Malian orthography. That said, the amount of text in the language is limited to a static page on its main site (from which the image above was drawn), and some text in older posts on its Facebook page.

L2 literacy & L1 illiteracy?

VOA's decision to use a frenchized (or Frenchified) transcription of Bambara - which it should be noted has no standard form, pretty much by definition - is apparently premised on the notion that many people in their audience don't read the standard Bambara orthography. There may be something to this, to the extent that in Mali, formal education is mainly or exclusively in French, and people who read French can sound out text with spellings reflecting French phonetics.

However this reasoning (or rationale) has at least two problems. First, it is not clear how much of the audience cannot read Bambara written in the official orthography. Have there been any surveys? And secondly, for a native speaker of the language, the official orthography would not seem that hard to work through.

On the latter point, a word about multilingual literacy, or its absence, in Africa. The fact that many people in Africa have been taught to read in a Europhone language (French, in the case of Mali), which for the vast majority is a second language ("L2"), but never formally taught in their first language ("L1") or local lingua franca (like Bambara in Mali), leads to situations where many people are not comfortable reading in their familiar African languages. I've been among those calling attention to the problem in using one measure of literacy in such multilingual contexts.4

However, that's not the same as saying an L2 (and non-L1) literate person should access their L1 only with the phonetcs of the L2. The bridge from L2-only literacy to L1 literacy is not as long as that from illiteracy to basic literacy of any kind. And the Latin-based orthography of Bambara (what we are talking about here) is not that difficult to master. After all, it doesn't seem to have put a crimp in RFI Mandenkan's effectiveness.

Tech issues: A problem? And a potential

One needs to ask if maybe a hidden issue with VOA and the Bambara orthography isn't the issue with keyboards and input. Is it possible that a simple input solution enabling the VOA Bambara service staff to type the special characters used in Bambara could change this discussion?

Also, could VOA use the perceived shortcomings in audience mastery of the Bambara orthography to engage their audience with some kind of online learning app? This would certainly generate a more favorable buzz than what the current situation is doing.

Petition to VOA

The only version of the petition I am aware of is the one in French on the site. A Bambara version would be logical - as a "medium is the message" statement if nothing else - but I have not seen any. Appended below for information of people who do not read French, but do read English, is a quick translation5 of the text of the petition into the latter:
Voice of America journalists must respect the Bambara orthography
Considering that Mali, since its accession to independence and through all the successive regimes, has emphasized the importance of the languages and cultures of the country;

Considering that the question of languages spoken in Mali is included in the country's constitution;

Considering that for decades there have been departments dedicated to the question of the languages of Mali;

Considering the remarkable work done by Malian and foreign linguists on the languages spoken in Mali from 1960 to the present day;

Considering the intellectual and financial effort made by Mali and its international partners (in particular the African Academy of Languages) in the codification and use of Mali's languages in schools and in the media;

Considering the learning and the respect of these standards in writing as an obligation in order to perpetuate the work of codification carried out;

Considering that the state of Mali through the dedicated departments guarantees these standards;

Considering that the journalists of the Mandenkan team of RFI (Radio France Internationale) have been trained and correctly use the spelling rules of Bambara;

Considering that the Bambara team of the Voice of America (VOA) does not respect any Bambara spelling rules;

We hereby call on the State of Mali (through the Ministry of National Education / Malian Academy of Languages) and the African Academy of Languages to remind the Voice of America of strict respect for the spelling rules of Bambara on the VOA Bambara page.

Recommend for this purpose:

The training of Bambaraphone journalists of VOA in the spelling rules of Bambara.

What about Hausa?

This discussion would not be complete without mention of the continued use of ASCIIfied Hausa by the international radio operations, including VOA and RFI. And how is it that RFI gets Mandenkan (Bambara) right, but not Hausa?
1. He mentioned this in a discussion about the topic on the Facebook African Languages group page (2 Jan. 2019). Sam is a former Peace Corps/Mali language program instructor and administrator. We have known each other since the slightly famous Peace Corps pre-service training in Moribabougou, Mali in 1983.
2. See Coleman's blog post on this topic and the VOA petition, "Voice of America's Bambara Orthography and a Petition," on his interesting site about Manding languages (which include Bambara), An ka taa.
3. Coleman Donaldson. 2017. "Orthography, Standardization and Register: The Case of Manding." In P. Lane, J. Costa, & H. De Korne (Eds.), Standardizing Minority Languages: Competing Ideologies of Authority and Authenticity in the Global Periphery (pp. 175–199). New York, NY: Routledge.
4. See, for instance, "Multilingual Literacy Day, 2014" (8 Sep 2014).
5. Based on what Google Translate produced, which was much more useful than Systranet's output.