Saturday, September 22, 2007

Language - a vital & neglected topic in African agricultural development?

Following are some excerpts with minor modifications from the introduction I wrote to comments on a report about agricultural development in Africa several months ago. These are in italics, followed by some comments to put it in a personal perspective:
I see language as an important consideration often - and paradoxically - omitted from discussions on agriculture and rural development in Africa: language and specifically communication about agriculture in farmers' languages and/or local lingua francas. ... The issues of choice of language in development communication, and the implications of those choices for who participates, whose knowledge counts, how well knowledge that is exchanged is understood and appropriated, etc. [have] implications for analysis or action. ...

I think it is fair to say that only in Africa (esp. sub-Saharan) is it the general pattern that the languages dominant in agricultural research and extension are different from those the farming populations speak as their first languages and even lingua francas. There are various reasons for this of course, but the fact is important, and too central to any effort to communicate about science and technology with farmers to be left on the margins of the discourse, let alone to be totally ignored.

Rural realities as concern language and linguistic diversity are not unknown to scholars and practitioners concerned with agriculture in Africa, of course, and many of our African colleagues have themselves lived those realities to one degree or another. However, disciplinarily, such language-related issues are alien to agricultural specialists (to a greater extent even than the broad category of social science), and in practice language differences are left to extension agents and/or intermediary farmers in the field to deal with. Moreover, professional incentives, training and education, etc. are all in English, French and Portuguese, not the first languages of agriculture in Africa.

As a consequence there seems to be a linguistic divide with consequences for understanding, transmission and generation of knowledge etc. This issue, which has many unanswered questions but not easy answers, is underresearched, in part because of a disciplinary divide which linguists on the one hand and the range of specialists concerned with agricultural development on the other need to find the will and means to bridge.

I recall working in rural areas and there were many occasions where multiple languages complicated communication or even shaped the way the work was done. At the time it was just one of those things you and your co-workers dealt with. My main counterpart in an animal traction project in the Amlamé district of Togo spoke Ewe as his first language (L1) but the farmers spoke either Kabiye or Akposso as their L1. With a mixture of French and mostly Mina/Ewe, my counterpart could get the messages across. I worked mainly in French and while communication was possible with some of the farmers it was not with the rest. People there were adept at using their "language portfolios" as it were to translate and complete some sort of communication. How much was lost is another matter and I suspect in retrospect that this system is good for the gist but not nuance or detail, and the "devil is in the details" as the saying goes.

It was clear in any event that no one had planned systematically for how communication across languages was to happen - everything sort of depended on extension agents' and farmers' skills in the field.

In working on a forestry project in the Djenné district of Mali, language and ethnicity emerged as issues in deciding which villages to contact for participation in tree planting (the project was just beginning there and it was not possible by any means to go everywhere). The local staff was more comfortable in Bambara than in some other languages, and indeed it was in the Bambara-speaking villages that the work focused (other issues like perception of the readiness of some other groups to reliably participate in tree planting were also expressed - it is hard to sort out the different factors, but that would have been important to do).

The multiplicity of languages is sometimes pointed at as a problem in Africa, but I think that misses the point. In fact it is not the multilingualism that is the issue but the fact that no few if any (as far as I know) discussing how to best work in the linguistic environment.

At the same time, the skill of Africans generally in facilitating communication across languages (which has been discussed in the literature on African languages) may be obscuring the need for more systematic attention to the issue.

It was interesting to note that some researchers with ICRISAT and IITA who had to follow up on field trials with farmers by means of a questionnaire decided to translate the questionnaires into the farmers' languages (Bambara in Mali for sorghum trials I believe, and Hausa in central Niger for cowpea trials). Having one or many field agents translate the questionnaire from French each time it was administered was obviously going to introduce all sorts of unknowns into the quality of the data. The research need for greater precision led to the obvious choice to communicate in the farmers' languages.

So, one wonders, what about the way field agents translate extension information day-to-day?

It took me a while to really catch on to this issue, even though I have worked on language as well as rural development. Which has me wondering why - was I just slow or what? I do think now, as I indicated in the excerpts quoted above, that part of it is a disciplinary culture and divide issue: the issue was agriculture or forestry, and the foreign experts and the research/extension systems function in French (in those countries). Language, or optimizing communication in specific languages, were not something that entered into the discourse.

This gets into speculation for the reasons, but the main point I'm trying to make is that language is a big deal and there hasn't been enough thought given or research done on how big a deal it is, in what precise ways, and how to best address it. Discussing new approaches and techniques for agriculture in Africa, and especially discussing dissemination of knowledge about these, without engaging the issue of language seems to me to be a mistake we don't have to keep making.

Anyway, this is an issue that I've mentioned before (for instance, Sept. 14, 2006) and will come back to periodically.

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