Saturday, February 21, 2004

Today is International Mother Language Day, an observance established by the UN in 1999. Apparently there will be some ceremonies chez UNESCO on Monday 2/23. More info at En français à

In the panorama of holidays, anniversaries, and observances it may seem quite minor, but it is one of the only events calling attention to 1) language loss and 2) the too often overlooked (esp. in Africa) importance of first languages in education.

A couple of brief articles give more info: UNESCO urges teaching from earliest age in indigenous mother languages and UN's Mother Language Day Focuses On Conserving World's Linguistic Heritage.

There is no observance that I'm aware of in Niamey. A colleague I mentioned this to a while back asked, but there was nothing. And no time to generate something. Unfortunately the advance support from UNESCO for this seems to be minimal - they pull things together nicely in time (webpage, ceremonies), but for advance planning there is little. I did get a nice letter in response to inquiries offering to send materials, but it was too close to the event to allow for mail to arrive.

Problème avec l'affichage du français ici! Sur un autre ordinateur que j'utilise d'habitude pour regarder ce blog j'ai remarqué que les caractères accentés sont transformés en autres choses... Cela arrive je crois parceque ce page est en UTF-8, et selon la configuration du browser, les entités indiqués par caractères accentés veut transmettre d'autres informations que celles qu'on a esperé. A faami?? Franchement, je ne sais même pas si moi je comprends complètement. Une solution est de mettre, par exemple, & e a c u t e ; (sans les espace intercalés) pour e accent aigu dans le texte (html) du "post" etc. - mais c'est gênant. Donc je chercherai une autre solution...

Enfin, a couple of things written to someone re an interesting survey of cybercafés in Nairobi. It seemed to me that the question re language was missing. In fact language of content and access seems to be given little energy by people promoting ICT. Here are excerpts from my two letters; I omit the nice brief reply (basically saying no) to the first letter that I received this morning:

(Thursday, November 20, 2003 6:51 AM)

Greetings! I saw the item on your Nairobi cybercafé survey in Balancing Act's News Update #183 and found it very interesting. Indeed, this is a topic deserving more research and I hope your effort encourages same.

In looking at the News Update piece and the summary at I did not notice mention of any questions in what I think is an area of central interest, that of language. Maybe this subject was discussed in the full report, but I had trouble downloading it.

Some questions I would look for would include the languages people use in e-mail and websurfing (not sure how many sites in Kenya have Swahili, for instance, though there are a number in Tanzania of course) and whether users have any preferences in this regard that are not currently met with regard to content language (i.e., would they like to see more content in Kenyan languages). The latter question would seem to fit with the overall theme of the report that users sought more local content: does the language of the local content matter, to whom, in what ways, and to what extent?

This all would bridge to another set of questions re computer interfaces: although Swahili for example uses the ASCII character set, I understand that Gikuyu has some diacritic characters (see ) and that this may pose an inconvenience to people who might want to use this in, say, e-mail (see for example ). Have cybercafés dealt with this question or even thought about it?

Thanks in advance for any feedback and all the best!

(Saturday, February 21, 2004 10:51 AM)

. . . Re language I think it's always important and the interest is definitely real. Three things tend to submerge the issue in various agendas/discourses (including those relating to ICT):

1) In my mainly West African experience, there are things close to the heart that people don't make a big thing of overtly.
2) Many Africans have more or less bought into the line that their languages are "tribal dialects" or in any event unsuited for science, technology, and learning. This has been reinforced by the formal education systems which at best assign a secondary role to indigenous languages and in too many cases (esp. in former French colonies)
3) Many Westerners tend to assume away African languages, even though their intent be benign, since they generally don't understand them, and the Africans they interact with the most tend to be able to get by in English or French.

ICT adds another dimension to this. The association of English (or French) with technology, opportunity, and the exciting world elsewhere is understandable, but there could and arguably should be the opportunity for some balance. Nobody is suggesting that Africans have to use their languages on computers and the internet, but the current approaches in many ways tell them that they can't - or shouldn't be so foolish as to think of it.

The latter may seem gratuitous, but I've been dumbfounded by some things I've heard occasionally mainly from Westerners working in development here - why would someone want to use something other than French if they can understand that? ; we're a decade and a half away from any localization for African languages ; the plurality of African languages (and the inability to initiate use in all of them) makes it better to stay with English or French...

Coming back to your cybercafé survey, language is worth the question(s). Especially in the case of Swahili, which of course is an important regional language that is even being considered as a medium for instruction in higher education. But even in the case of Kenya for other maternal languages - there has been some significant publication in Gikuyu, for instance, so why not use it on the internet, or why shouldn't speakers of that tongue be interested in seeing some web content in it? The main thing is that behind the apparent "lack of excitement" on the topic there may be, and likely is, a range of opinion and interest. It would be interesting to know what this is currently and also to follow its evolution, if you are planning to continue the study.

. . .

Last item for this entry - I had joked about agricultural linguistics with a couple of our trainees not long ago. It's not as far out a juxtaposition as it might seem: I just ran across the term environmental linguistics looking for something else yesterday. That has a couple of senses it seems - depending on whether it's the built environment or the natural one - a distinction that means more perhaps to us with ag. & NRM backgrounds than to linguists. The latter sense seems along the lines of the operating premises of the NGO Terralingua. I still think that there's a fertile area for research and practice on language and development in Africa, and linguistics needs to be brought into the mix more vigorously.

No comments: