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.


Anonymous said...

If you are interested, I can forward you a copy of my publication concerning how Malagasy (language of Madagascar) ways of speaking are shifting dramatically as a result of discourses of 'transparency versus corruption' in international development, and democracy and governance programs. In short, such rhetorics of modernity pit traditional public styles of speaking (namely, kabary oratory) as corrupt because of its fluorishes of poetry and proverbs (the idea is that one can hide behind such flowery prose) and new, more Western styles that are supposedly more transparent (because the claim is soundbites are more direct). This is a case of language endangerment, not so much the language itself but very key styles associated with the socio-cultural context and memory of Madagascar history and identity.

Finja said...

this sounds really interesting. are you writing a research paper on it?
is there any chance that you could provide me with your findings? (email see below)
i'm really curious about it!

Don said...

Thank you for the comments.

To Jennifer: Yes I am interested in a copy of your publication. You raise an interesting point. The issue of linguistic diversity is not just saying things in different words, but also in different ways. One would hope that Malagasy can accommodate the "traditional" and the "modern" in the sense that many cultures do the same with their languages and modes of expression.

To Barbara: I will write up an informal summary and that will inform a couple of different research efforts. That will be posted here, and I'll also be happy to forward you a copy.