Thursday, March 13, 2008

Development NGOs and African languages

I've been e-mailing some non-governmental organizations involved in African development about the role of African languages in their work. This is an exploratory research on a small scale that hopefully will help further research in related areas. The core text of the letter follows:

In order to better understand the evolving field, and how my range of expertise can best respond to and inform organizations like yours that administer development projects in Africa, I am soliciting feedback from the management of various such organizations. My operating assumption, which is supported in some literature as well as personal experience, is that in the multilingual settings that predominate in Africa, language is largely overlooked as a factor in the success or not of development and education programs (although in the field of primary education there is increasing attention to the issue of mother-tongue/bilingual instruction). Choice of language(s) in development has potential impact on factors critical to project success and sustainability, such as communication, participation, learning, and integration with indigenous knowledge.

What is at issue now is verifying this view and understanding specifics and needs concerning language in development organizations. My questions are as follows and I would be most grateful if you or any of your staff could respond. This is not a formal survey, but the knowledge gained may help move in that direction.

1) In the planning or management of your projects in Africa, does the issue of choice of languages to use arise in any level of work? (i.e., from the planning itself, to management, to communications within the projects and with and among the beneficiaries?)

2) If these projects use more than one language, are the roles of these languages parallel (i.e., all languages used on all levels) or stratified (for example, English used at the top, another more frequently among the staff, and then local languages among the benficiaries)?

3) If several languages are used, is translation necessary and how is it used?
3a) In the case of translation into & from African languages, on which level and by who is it done? (For example, in my rural development experience, translation tended to be ad hoc and in the field. However some crop research activities have begun to translate questionnaires into farmers' first languages before these are administered in the field in order to remove the variable of alternate or incorrect translations.)

4) Can you characterize the attitudes of projects' management and staff towards the languages of the beneficiaries?

My ultimate hope in this effort is to contribute to more effective use of African languages in development, from "traditional" development activities to the uses of information technology.
Question #2 is modified from the original in response to a comment: "stratified" replaces "hierarchical." The origin of this question is the observation that all multilingualisms are not the same. In Europe apparently the tendency is for a speaker to use, or be able to use, multiple languages in all ranges of expression. In Africa on the other hand, the pattern apparently is more often speakers using different languages for different contexts, but maybe no language for all ranges.

I hope to have more to write on this topic as I receive more responses.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Linguapax Prize 2008 to Neville Alexander

The recipient of the Linguapax Prize for 2008 is Dr. Neville Alexander of South Africa. The prize is awarded annually (since 2000) in recognition of contributions to linguistic diversity and multilingual education.

Although the Linguapax site does not at this writing have updated information, the website of the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia (which is connected with Linguapax) has this press release dated 22.02.2008:
The South African linguist Neville Alexander will receive the Linguapax Award today in Barcelona, on the occasion of the Mother Language Day. The ceremony is framed in the Intercultural Week organised by the Ramon Llull University. Alexander, who coordinates the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa has devoted more than twenty years of his professional life to defend and preserve multilingualism in the post-apartheid South Africa and has become one of the major advocates of linguistic diversity.
There is various material online about Dr. Alexander including:

Dr. Alexander is the second African to be awarded the Linguapax Prize. Prof. Maurice Tadadjeu of the Univeristy of Yaoundé in Cameroon received it in 2005.