Sunday, February 24, 2008

Role of African languages for development

The African Academy of Languages uses the slogan "African languages for African development." Unfortunately there is not yet a strong body of literature linking language and development in Africa. There are several works of note that discuss African languages from various perspectives - linguistic and sociolinguistic aspects to language and education policies. However few works make the case for greater and more effective use of Africa's first languages in development plans and programs.

Probably the only book-length treatment of the role of African languages in development is Clinton Robinson's Language Use in Rural Development: An African Perspective (Walter de Gruyter, 1996). This is a valuable work, but is more a book on micro-level linguistics in a development context and does not connect with some of the main development concerns. (Dr. Robinson now works with UNESCO on literacy issues.)

Part of the reason I'm writing about this topic now is that I recently saw on the "Sociolingo’s African Linguistics" blog reference to an article entitled "Globalization and the Role of African Languages for Development" by Ohio University English professor Ghirmai Negash. Although written in 2005, the paper apparently has just been made available online. It is a welcome addition to the literature on language and development in Africa.

Dr. Negash's perspective is a macro one. Building from a consideration of Africa's responses to globalization, and considering aspects of the African condition like the "division between the population and the elite" (which has linguistic dimensions explored in other literature), he argues that "African languages could be the most critical element for Africa’s survival, and cultural, educational and economic development." His discussion revolves around a central question - "How can Africans meaningfully connect with and respond to the demands of the global order, without compromising their cultural values?" - and touches on some important points.

I won't attempt a full review here, but will say that the fact of Dr. Negash's reviewing and rebutting some of the common objections to increased use of African language is useful. He also brings in examples and references that I found interesting and helpful.

Nevertheless, in this relatively sparsely covered (but nevertheless very important) field of language and development in Africa, my general impression is that the articles I'm aware of often tend to recycle arguments (which is to some extent necessary), and that in some cases, it is not clear whether authors are aware of all the existing relevant literature. Part of the problem is that this is an interdisciplinary field that includes a big "divide" between linguistics on the one side and development studies on the other (I've referred to previously to this, on Sept. 22, 2007).

At this point in time maybe one essential resource would be a comprehensive bibliography - and that would have to be structured (topically) based on a particular understanding of relevant topics (i.e., some works in development relating to subjects like participation or development communication might be relevant even where they do not specifically mention language).

Before concluding this entry, I will mention that the topic of Dr. Negash's paper elicited a small exchange of views on the lgpolicy-list just recently.

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