Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Three more items before the IDN/Unicode conference: Connections en route; education in African languages; African studies in China

Here are 3 unrelated items, the first was written mostly on the last leg of the trip yesterday, the second is part of a letter about education policy written earlier that I've been intending to post (relevant to this blog and in a way to the context of discussion of things like IDNs and localization), and the third to a link between where I just came from and where I am.

I will also quickly mention three other items that have just come up today relating to the upcoming conference: (1) I just received a note from Daniel Yacob with a powerpoint on IDNs in Ethiopic (script used for several languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea). It is of course with the non-Latin scripts that a lot of the most interesting problems for IDNs are encountered; (2) there is a series of articles on the IDN/Unicode conference and African language computing generally in a special issue of Les Echos here in Dakar (see the files section of Unicode-Afrique for the PDF of this); and (3) I just met Mamady Doumbouya of the N'ko Institute who is also here for the conference. We had a good talk about aspects of localization, African languages, and the N'ko movement. N'ko is a script devised less than 50 years ago, but is increasingly used in the Mandephone parts of West Africa (and it is in the process of being approved for addition to Unicode).

The three items I mentioned are as follows.

Connections en route: airport to airport

The travel day, and it is a long day traveling with the sun across Eurasia and then south to Africa, is not so hard as it is one that demands patience, then at points some frantic rushing and then more patience. Time to fill with some work and thinking. There is not much rest, but some adrenaline.

On this trip I had more opportunity to look at the various connection possibilities in airports. I was impressed that Chengdu airport now has a nice cyberlounge where you can link via cable (broadband) or use one of their computers. This is new, as far as I've noticed. Connection was broadband by cable.

Beijing has the same reliable but rather expensive business lounge (these are not the "business class" & first class lounges of the airlines). The cable hookup did not work for me even when trying to reconfigure my settings. The China Unicom wireless signal was not clear this time, though I didn't waste much time looking for it since you had to have a cellphone account with them to use it.

I was not able to link up on Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for-pay wireless this time - not enought time in layover.. I did try in the plane as it was still loading, but the signal did not carry outside. This airport also has (or at least did as recently as last June) little for-pay internet kiosks.

No attempt to connect in Dakar airport on arrival, but I am pleased that the Novotel where we are staying has wireless in the ground floor (lobby, restaurant, bar).

Substantively some of what I'm doing is to keep thinking through all the things I want to cover with various people in Dakar in the conference and in diverse other meetings. Over the years so many issues and questions seem to have some connection with someone or some organization in Dakar. Part of what malkes this trip worth making the time is the potential to (re)connect with so many people.

Of course the IDN (internet domain names) & Unicode conference is the main event, and will bring together a number of people. Je tenterai d'ecrire un peu sur les participants et l'activite meme prochainement. From the description of the project of which this event is a part, it seems the issue is bigger than IDNs only. More soon - hopefully they'll put this document on the web.

Education in national languages of Ghana

The following is an excerpt (slightly edited to read better) from a letter I wrote to Paa Kwesi Imbeah on the subject of the apparently pretty exclusive focus on English as language of instruction that one sees in Ghana these days. I think it is useful to bring up the educational angle again as we prepare in Dakar for this Unicode/IDN meeting. (Paa Kwesi, by the way, will be presenting a paper on the Akan online dictionary at the Unicode conference IUC28 in Orlando, Florida, which also begins tomorrow):

English is the "language of the belly" or "language of the stomach," as they say. Some people see it as their ticket to eating enough. Others see it as their ticket to eating a lot. There is some truth to that but it hides other realities. One is that neglecting or, as a colleague once put it, taking for granted the indigenous languages leads to some significant losses and costs that aren't imediately apparent.

One you hint at in your letter is limited or impaired bilingualism or worse, semilingualism. This has been touched on in some entries on this blog and also in the Multilingual_Literacy group (link in the left hand column ; you can search the terms on the group's page).

Ghana's government is not alone in focusing on English. In the current global economic situation, the enhanced prospects of outsourcing industries, outside investments, etc. (already a part of the scene in the country) mean dollar and cedi signs to planners. But the global climate could change drastically in the future with English being less central (hard to see now but who can say?). So if Ghana sells its linguistic heritage for a middling average national competence in what is still essentially a foreign/international language, where would it be then?

But the worst of it is that it isn't an "either-or" question but a "both-and" issue. Good bilingual education can give you the best of both worlds (a lot of research worldwide shows this): Ghanaian languages and English. Unfortunately, the way it goes, they don't take advantage of the "both-and" approach and so somehow end up with a "neither-nor" result for a lot of the population.

I would add that there was a conference last month in Windhoek, Namibia on bilingual education in Africa. See an article and the conference document (the latter in PDF format and rather large).

African studies in China

I finally caught up with Prof. Li Anshan's article that was published a few months ago: "African Studies in China in the Twentieth Century: A Historiographical Survey" in the African Studies Review, 48(1): 59-87. Part of what interests me about China-Africa connections is that they are getting increasingly important. In and of itself, and as part of broader evolution of so-called South-South relations, the relationship between China (the world's most populous country with a rapidly growing economy) and Africa (the second largest continent with a rapidly growing population) will become ever greater in the development picture for Africa. It will be interesting also to see the evolution of studies and understanding of Africa in China and vice-versa. Anyway, an abstract from Johns Hopkins' Project Muse follows. I would add to it only that Prof. Li mentions that the only two African languages taught in China are Swahili and Hausa.

This article surveys African studies in China during the twentieth century. It is divided into five parts: "Sensing Africa" (1900–1949), "Supporting Africa" (1949–65), "Understanding Africa" (1966–76), and "Studying Africa" (1977–2000). From a Chinese perspective, the author tells how, when, and why Chinese scholars have conducted their research on Africa according to paradigms that evolved during the last century. In conclusion, the author points out the achievements as well as the problems in African studies in China today.

Cet article propose un aperçu des études africaines menées en Chine au cours du vingtième siècle. Il est divisé en cinq parties: «Approcher l'Afrique» (1900-1949), «Soutenir l'Afrique» (1949-65), «Comprendre l'Afrique» (1966-76) et «Étudier l'Afrique» (1977-2000). A partir d'une perspective chinoise, l'auteur examine comment, quand, et pourquoi les chercheurs chinois ont mené leur recherche sur l'Afrique, selon des paradigmes qui ont évolué au cours du siècle. En conclusion, l'auteur souligne les succès et les difficultés rencontrés par les études africaines en Chine aujourd'hui.

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