Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ethnologue and the cross-border languages of Africa

Two content features seem to me to detract from the overall quality of Ethnologue - which is the indispensable reference on all the world's languages. One is that pages on cross-border languages - a prominent sociolinguistic feature in Africa - are titled as the language of only one of the countries where they are spoken. The other is that in the current online version, the country pages list "national language," which is a problematic heading, given diverse use of the term, notably in a number of African countries. In this post I will deal with the first of these two items.

A continent traversed by cross-border languages

Due to the way borders in Africa were drawn, a great many of its ethno-linguistic groups are split among two or more of the modern African countries. The languages spoken by such groups can today be called "cross-border languages," and in fact this is the term used by the African Academy of Languages for some of the work it is doing, notably the Vehicular Cross-Border Language Commissions.

Languages that are spoken in more than one country - whether as a first language, which is often the case, or as a vehicular language, which is also frequent - have been a concern of language planning in Africa since independence. The various conferences on African languages that I have cited in some previous posts reflect this concern. Cross border languages were also highlighted by former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré, who compared them to "sutures" uniting African countries.*

"A language of" one country, more than one country, or a region?

When one looks up one of these cross-border languages in Ethnologue, however, they are as a rule listed as "a language of" a single country. It bears noting that when borders divide a language community, that community is rarely split in equal parts, so it appears that Ethnologue usually assigns the language to the country where there are more speakers. Other countries, regardless of significance in the language usage, are placed under "Also Spoken In:..."

So, for instance Hausa, the first language of 18.5 million Nigerians (according to Ethnologue, based on a 1991 SIL estimate), but also of about half the much smaller population of Niger, and used across large parts of West Africa (as a lingua franca), is titled simply "... a language of Nigeria." Is Hausa any less a language of Niger, given that the historic home of most Hausas (sometimes called Hausaland) extends well into the latter country? Better "A language of Nigeria and Niger"? Or given the number of other countries where it is "also spoken," maybe Hausa is really "A language of West Africa"?

Another example is the Ewe language, spoken by a population split between southeastern Ghana and southern Togo, which is listed as "... a language of Ghana." Similar to the case with Hausa in Nigeria and Niger, Ewe is spoken by more people in Ghana, but by a larger percentage of the population in Togo. So why not "A language of Ghana and Togo"? The reverse is noted in the case of Southern Sotho, which has more speakers in South Africa, but a higher percentage of population speaking it in Lesotho (it has legal status in both countries) - and is listed as "A language of Lesotho."

Examples abound, among which the major regional language of Swahili is listed as a language of Tanzania (see also discussion of macrolanguages, below).

Ultimately it seems (1) misleading to title pages on cross-border languages as languages of one particular country, and (2) inconsistent the way it is done. Going back to Ethnologue's "Plan of the Site" page, one finds mention of counting "each language only once as belonging to its country of origin" - but what if the area of origin of a language (to the extent one can determine that with any precision) is divided by borders?

Would it not be possible to develop a simple set of criteria by which cross-border languages were given titles  based on the extent (countries) of their major use?

Cross-border macrolanguages

The category of macrolanguage - defined as "multiple, closely related individual languages that are deemed in some usage contexts to be a single language" - takes this issue up another level. Although defined on linguistic criteria, macrolanguages in Africa are even more likely to cross borders, often many borders. There are 14 African macrolanguages by my count, with many of those being cross-border and some really looking like regional languages. Yet all of those are listed as being of one country or another:
  • Arabic, "A macrolanguage of Saudi Arabia" (spoken in many countries, including at least 9 in Northern Africa)
  • Dinka, "A macrolanguage of South Sudan" (spoken mainly in South Sudan)
  • Fulah, "A macrolanguage of Senegal" (spoken in well over a dozen countries, mainly in West Africa)
  • Gbaya, "A macrolanguage of Central African Republic" (spoken in CAR and Cameroon)
  • Grebo, "A macrolanguage of Liberia" (spoken in Liberia and Ivory Coast)
  • Kalenjin, "A macrolanguage of Kenya" (spoken mainly in Kenya, and also in Uganda and Tanzania)
  • Kanuri, "A macrolanguage of Nigeria" (spoken in 5 countries of West and Central Africa)
  • Kongo, "A macrolanguage of Democratic Republic of Congo" (spoken in DRC, Angola, and Congo)
  • Kpelle, "A macrolanguage of Liberia" (spoken in Liberia and Guinea)
  • Malagasy, "A macrolanguage of Madagascar" (spoken mainly in Madagascar)
  • Mandingo, "A macrolanguage of Guinea" (spoken in 7 countries of West Africa)
  • Oromo, "A macrolanguage of Ethiopia" (spoken in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia)
  • Swahili, "A macrolanguage of Tanzania" (spoken in at least 9 countries mainly in East Africa, among which some governments have accorded it legal status)
  • (Akan is described as "A language of Ghana" in Ethnologue, and is also a macrolanguage in ISO 639-3. Either way it is considered to include Fanti and Twi, and is spoken mainly in Ghana.)
Here again, would it not be possible to adjust certain titles to more accurately convey the range of use? For instance, Fulah as "A macrolanguage of West Africa" and Swahili as "A macrolanguage of East Africa." The macrolanguage items may be easier to modify on a case-by-case basis, as there are fewer of them than languages, and their respective circumstances are somewhat unique. The language entries on the other hand might, as suggested above, need a set of criteria to avoid case by case discussion.

Final thoughts

These observations and suggestions are made in the spirit of helping improve the Ethnologue resource, with a mind particularly to what kind of information that people new to the study of languages of Africa would take away from their initial encounter with it. Cross-border languages exist in all world regions, of course, but perhaps in none more than Africa, where borders were never intended to respect the integrity of ethno-linguistic groups. This category of languages seems to me to merit attention and appropriate revision in how it is presentated.

* "Les langues nationales transfrontalières doivent être non pas des points limitrophes, des points de démarcation, mais des points de suture entre nos pays."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Microsoft giving Africa LIP(s)

Where are we now with software localization in African languages? I'd like to try to take stock in several quick installments, beginning with desktop/laptop software and then moving to mobile devices. This post starts it off with Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office, due to no particular ordering - I just happened to come across something recently relating to Microsoft's (MS's) localization efforts.

MS's products are offered in diverse languages, but in what might be described as a tiered arrangement. A number of languages have fully localized versions - for MS Office 2013, for instance, there are by my count 40 such versions (which includes only Arabic among African languages, as well as the principal Eurphone languages used in Africa). But for other languages, MS's Local Language Program develops Language Interface Packs (LIPs) for Windows and Office. A LIP includes translations of about 80% of commands (the most frequently used), and is installed over another version, basically changing the language interface to the language of the LIP.

MS has added a number of African language LIPs for Windows and Office over the past decade. This represents a significant amount of work, notably on terminology (another key topic I hope to return to).

MS Windows 7, which was released in 2009, had 10 African language LIPsWindows 8, released in 2012, introduced 3 more African LIPs (Kinyarwanda, Tigrinya, and Wolof), a Botswanan version for Setswana, and allowed installation of Hausa LIP on French in addition to English base language. The following list, derived from lists on the Windows site, summarizes African language LIP support under Windows 7 and 8 (in parentheses are the base languages on which the LIP can be installed, as well as indications for those languages added with 8 but not available for 7):

  • Afrikaans (English base language editions)
  • Amharic (English base language editions)
  • Hausa (English base language editions; in Windows 8, French base language also)
  • Igbo (English base language editions)
  • Kinyarwanda (in Windows 8 only; English base language editions)
  • Sesotho sa Leboa (English base language editions)
  • Setswana 
    • Botswana (in Windows 8 only; English base language editions)
    • South Africa (English base language editions)
  • Swahili (English base language editions)
  • Tigrinya (Ethiopia) (in Windows 8 only; English base language editions)
  • Wolof (in Windows 8 only; English base language editions & French base language)
  • Xhosa (English base language editions)
  • Yoruba (English base language editions)
  • Zulu (English base language editions)

The number of MS Office LIPs for African languages has gone from three for Office 2003 to 13 for Office 2013 (that's out of a total of over 100 LIPs worldwide). The table below is adapted from information on their Office Language Interface Pack (LIP) downloads page (check marks indicate LIP available):

Language Native name MS Office
MS Office
MS Office
MS Office
Afrikaans Afrikaanse
Amharic አማርኛ
Hausa Hausa
Igbo Igbo
Kinyarwanda Kinyarwanda
Sepedi /
Northern Sotho
Sesotho sa Leboa 
Setswana (South Africa)  Setswana
Swahili KiSwahili
Tigrinya ትግርኛ
Wolof Wolof
Xhosa isiXhosa
Yoruba ede Yorùbá
Zulu isiZulu

I have no information on any plans for other African languages.

MS additionally offers Multilingual User Interfaces which provide language interface options on a single device, though it is not clear whether any of these offer any African languages. (The term Language Packs, as distinguished from LIPs, has me [and apparently also Wikipedia?] a bit confused as it seems to be used in different ways.)

See also MS's Language Portal for additional information on their localization efforts. Also worth noting that evidently MS completed the LIPs much more quickly with recent releases than they had in the past.

I'd invite any comments - corrections or additional information. In getting back up to speed on this I again encountered MS's ever complex array of sites and pages about different programs, products, and versions, so it's probable I missed some relevant information... 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What does "bilingualism" mean in multilingual Africa?

A couple of questions seen in a recent tweet raise a number of issues about perceptions of languages, bilingualism, and multilingualism in Africa:
The answer to the last question would seem straightforward wouldn't it? Bilingual of course! Yet it does seem that the description of "bilingual" in Africa is often applied to the ability to speak two "Europhone" languages without consideration of African languages, despite the fact that there are many of the latter, spoken by many polyglot people in the many multilingual societies of the continent.

There is no shortage of examples, but one that comes to mind is a statement in 2003 by then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade during a state visit to the Nigerian capital Abuja. Speaking of regional cooperation, he chose to broach the issue of language, remarking that it is too bad the peoples of their two countries are not bilingual* (the implied languages being English and French). Although I do not have a complete reference at hand, it is mentioned in a later discussion of  remarks by a Ghanaian scholar on the occasion of release of a book on the history of the Ewe people of Togo and Benin,** to the effect that more bilingual education was needed - again in terms of English and French. There was specific reference in this case to linking "Ewe-speaking" scholars who work academically in English or French, but with no mention of the language that this group has in common across all borders.

"Official" bilingualism?

Part of the issue certainly is focus on the official languages, which for so many African countries are only those languages inherited from the colonial period and put to use since independence for administration, education, and wider communication. This appears to be the case for example in a Q&A between a reporter from the Senegalese daily Le Soleil and the French ambassador in Dakar in 2012. The question had to do with the "temptation" of some Francophone states in Africa to "bilingualism,"*** again bypassing the multilingual context of Africa and attending to official languages and language policies. This particular question was likely a reference to Rwanda's addition of English as an official language, and Burundi and Gabon considering similar moves (although Rwanda's move made it officially trilingual as Kinyarwanda, the first language of the population, and French, inherited from the colonial period, were retained as official languages).

In any event, the French ambassador's response reframed the question slightly to distinguish between the policies of countries and the decisions of individuals, including reference to maternal languages under the latter. I won't venture any interpretations other than to speculate that in some cases, it almost seems that "bilingual" is used as a code word for "adding English at the same official level as French" (I hope in the future to treat the area of policies of donor nations - former colonial powers among them - with regard to language and languages in Africa).

Bilingual and multilingual education

The term "bilingual" is also used in the context of so-called mother tongue/bilingual education, which typically involves an African language and a Europhone official language. This is a topic that has received significant attention from organizations and scholars involved in aid to and study of education in Africa (including Maurice Tadadjeu of Cameroon and Neville Alexander of South Africa, whose work has been mentioned previously on this blog). And it is a major focus in other world regions as well (a major Asian conference on mother tongue based/multilingual education - MTB/MLE - was just held in Bangkok earlier this month).

However, one notes that in some contexts references to bilingual education in Africa actually mean instruction/learning only in Europhone languages.

African multilingualism has been implicitly or explicitly recognized in various policy and applied contexts including a number of expert or ministerial-level conferences. In recent years, the African Academy of Languages, which functions under the auspices of the African Union, has sponsored a number of activities including the Bamako International Forum on Multilingualism (19-21 January 2009) whose recommendations included adoption of MTB/MLE. .

The case of Cameroon

The country of Cameroon is an interesting case to consider here, as it has two Europhone official languages - English and French - while also having some of the greatest linguistic diversity on the continent. It is common to hear the country described as bilingual, when in fact it is multilingual, with 280 living languages (by Ethnologue's count) . It is this juxtaposition that Prince Kum'a Ndumbe III was addressing when, on the occasion of a book fair his organization AfricAvenir sponsored in 2007, he stated: "The Cameroonian is not bilingual, he is multilingual."

Some of the complexities of the situation in Cameroon are explored in a short paper entitled "Bilingualism" by Usmang Salle Leinyui, which includes a discussion of different kinds of bilingualism in the country, and in an overview entitled "Multilingual Cameroon: Policy, Practice, Problems and Solutions" by Tove Rosendal (2008; University of Gothenberg Africana Informal Series, No. 7).

Cameroon has had an interesting history of efforts to promote literacy in its national languages (that term in much of Africa used for African first languages, and is a usage I would like to return to later). Much of Tadadjeu's work related to that, as did the AfricAvenir event mentioned above. However, "bilingual education" officially involves only English and French, as do various references to "bilingualism" in official documents (see Jacques Leclerc's L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde for more on this and related language policy issues). And although there have been efforts to promote use of and literacy in Cameroon's national languages (including proposal of a trilingual education model), and the constitution and high level documents mention them, Leclerc describes official "indifference" towards national languages, and Rosendal notes lack of implementation of policies to favor them.

Summary and closing question

So part of the issue of "bilingualism" in multilingual Africa often referring to Europhone languages and not African languages has to do with what have been designated "official languages." Another part may have to do with the status of languages - with it often seeming the case that knowledge of European languages is accorded more prestige than knowledge of African languages. Those two parts are certainly interrelated.

How then would a person be called who speaks one African language, one Europhone language, and, say, one Asian language?

* "Helas! nos peuples ne sont pas bilingues."
** Lawrance, Benjamin N., ed. 2005. The Ewe of Togo and Benin. Woeli Publishing Services (Ghana).
*** "Des pays africains francophones sont de plus en plus tentés par le bilinguisme. Que pensez-vous de cette évolution ?"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Where there is no spellchecker

For a text in a language like Fula that has no spell checker support, here's a workaround that might be more effective than resort to ever more careful copyediting: Break the text down into words and then sort the list into alphabetical order. Better yet, do a word frequency table.

The idea is to align words in a way that facilitates visual checking in a different way. It's especially effective for recurrent words and related words that in the generated list would fall together, but among which misspelled words would be counted separately.

I recently tried this with a text in Fulfulde of Niger and found numerous instances of what appear to be single to double letter errors (doubled consonants and vowels are significant for pronunciation, often with meaning differences where the letter is single), and substitution of plain b, d, or y for ɓ, ɗ, or ƴ(and vice-versa) along with other minor but not unimportant errors. The next step would be to go back to the original text to search the erroneous forms and replace with the correct spelling (either manually or by the search-and-replace function). Not so elegant perhaps, but should be effective.

There are a couple of ways of generating the word list, with the simplest being to substitute hard returns for spaces in the word processor program, then clean out punctuation and quotation marks, and then sort. This can be converted into a frequency list by means of a pivot table in Excel (and perhaps other spread sheet programs.

Another way is to use a text analysis utility software. I used one online at

Ultimately if one is doing a lot of work with text in a particular language, one imagines that lists generated in this way might be useful in building a corpus which could in turn be used for development of a spell-checker.

The way I came about this approach was in incorporating word frequencies as a step in qualitative data analysis (QDA) of text ("where there is no computer-assisted QDA software"). Word and phrase frequencies are of course used in a different way in the latter, but it occurred that breaking down text in this way might also be an aid in comparing the forms of the words themselves (spelling, mainly).

(For those not familiar with the famous basic health and first-aid publication for poor regions of the global South - Where There Is No Doctor - the title of this post is inspired in a very small way by it.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Touchscreen keyboards for African languages?

Who's doing what with touchscreen (virtual) keyboards for African languages? Although not a big fan of them for my personal use, I've long recognized that in principle they offer the potential to bypass the obvious limitations of physical computer keyboards - with their fixed number of keys - for layouts supporting various extended Latin character sets. This is important for a number of major languages of West and Central Africa whose orthographies include extended characters.

It was a friend's recent mention of someone else's mention of developing a Hausa keyboard for Nuance Swype that has me trying to get up to speed on where virtual keyboards for touchscreens are now, with particular reference to African languages.

If your keyboard is basically an interactive picture, then it would seem to offer the potential to modify and modestly expand to accommodate different alphabets such that of Hausa (adding rather than substituting keys would be easier on a larger screen of course - tablet rather than smartphone). Has this been done for African languages (other than Arabic, which benefits in terms of computer support from its wide international usage)?

Putting the question regarding Hausa - with additional reference to Apple touchscreen keyboards - to the old Hausa charsets & keyboards forum got helpful replies from Tom Gewecke (whose Multilingual Mac blog is an excellent source of info on iOS as well as Mac for diverse languages). Seems that iPhone and iPad support for a language like Hausa that is written with extended Latin (leaving aside the question of Ajami for another post) requires apps, and then cutting and pasting to use what one produces with them into whatever one is working on (email, document).

But there's lot's more going on with touchscreen keyboards. Looking for more information on Swype (which claims support for 70+ languages), I'm coming across mention of a number of other touchscreen keyboards and character selection apps. This is a question I plan to come back to but would appreciate any information from others.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on standard orthographies of African languages

In the previous post, I alluded to a discussion on H-Africa in December 2007 under the title "Names for African peoples & languages." Since it seems broadly relevant to issues raised in that post, I'll re-up a longish excerpt from one message in that discussion,* with some minor edits (in italics) and added outlinks.

With regard to the issue of orthographies, I think it is an oversimplification, and indeed in many cases an error to say that no one is using the "official" orthographies for African languages. Certainly for Pulaar in Senegal, there is some significant use of the orthography (e.g., publications by ARED [Associates in Research and Education for Development], many of which come from Fulaphone Senegalese). Adult literacy classes, and now increasingly some new first-language/bilingual primary education programs use the official orthography.

It is true that governments have not placed much emphasis on first-language literacy, and often none at all in formal schooling. In addition, language policies, including standards of orthography, are not given much official support.

So it is also true that people who go through English-only or French-only schooling may not be comfortable with an orthography that they were never taught (to quote just one person on this subject - Philip Emeagwali in a speech he made in 2004: "I was taught to write in a new language. As a result, I became literate in English but remain illiterate in Igbo - my native tongue."). This is an issue of language and education policies.

Nevertheless, where there are standards, efforts have been made to develop them, and there are people who do use them. To ignore these standards, especially now as they are getting to the point of being able to implement them more extensively in information technology, would be a disservice.

I was recently in South Africa for a workshop on localizing software and content in African languages. Two of the participants were Senegalese and had been working separately on translating different software into Wolof. This work - no less than writing a book - depends on a common orthography, which happily exists. One of the projects, ANAFA, has also been working on computer literacy in Wolof - another area relying on standard orthography. (BTW, they are coordinating their efforts now; I should also mention in passing that the Wolof Wikipedia is beginning to get more attention too.)

This may seem far from deciding what orthography to use in citing a word from a language in a scholarly paper, but I'd argue that all this highlights a context that is indeed relevant to such a choice. In any case, in the end it seems like a question of principle. The level of attention scholars pay to such issues seems to me not to be neutral - it sends a message of support or of dismissal; it respects the standard such as it is, or it says the standard is not worth the bother.

I'm painting this in somewhat simple terms. I do recognize that there are various issues surrounding the various orthographies (part of the rationale for N'Ko for Manding languages is the assertion that the Latin script is not adapted to the language). But ultimately any writing system that is reasonably well conceived and consistently used is of more value than either pursuit of an unattainable perfection (some orthographies such as for Bambara have been revised several times to improve them) or a return to the old days when African languages were written according to whatever transcription matched the author's experience or imagination.

* Source: "Names for African peoples & language: REPLY," Don Osborn, H-Africa list, 14 December 2007.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Texting in Wolof & implicatons for standard orthographies

In a recent post on Think Africa Press entitled "Wolof 2.0: Spoken Languages in a Digital Age," Juliana Friend offers a very interesting snapshot (and video) of the meeting of the Wolof language in Senegal with information and communications technology.

A remark by a Senegalese woman quoted in the post about spelling in Wolof not mattering as much as getting the message across oddly had me remembering a long discussion on H-Africa in December 2007 ("Names for African peoples & languages") wherein one of the topics was whether scholars should use the official orthographies of languages whose terms they used in publication.

Standardized spellings and orthographies of course have a reason, or really several functions (from clarity of meaning to facilitating learning to read). They are more critical in long texts and formalized uses, such as a localized interface on computer or mobile device, than they are in texting or citing an occasional word in an academic publication. So one sees for example attention to Wolof spelling and orthographies in both the content and the interface of the Wolof Wikipedia.

Ms. Friend's post focuses on Senegal - the main country where Wolof is spoken - but it's important to remember that the language is also spoken by significant segments of the populations of Gambia and southern Mauritania. The issue of transnational harmonization of the written forms of the many cross-border languages of Africa is a subject that has been given official attention since the 1960s. It would be interesting to know whether written Wolof is still "unified" in this sense across the countries where it is spoken. (I'll come back to this general subject in a later post.)

It's also probably worth thinking about how it came about that in Senegal "French was traditionally the language of writing, Wolof the language of speaking." In fact, Wolof was historically written in Wolofal, an Arabic-based script whose use has persisted.

Part of the reason that a language like Wolof is spoken "not" written has to do in large measure with education policies under which generations of students were not taught to read anything but French (or in Gambia, English). In Saint-Louis, Senegal, an early effort to teach in Wolof was stopped in 1829, setting the tone of French monolingual education policy in colonies acquired later.

The latter historic anecdote came from an article several years ago on spell checkers for certain African languages. In the case of Wolof, maybe a new generation of spell checker apps for devices on which one texts might be an important piece of the establishment of its official written form. Other pieces might range from first-language literacy apps for smart mobile devices to evolution of education policies.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

More notes about all the lists in the sidebar

This blog was originally set up with a side purpose of providing links to various fora (forums) on which African languages and technology were discussed - and these still appear in the sidebar. For some years, some of these fora - email lists and discussion boards - were quite active and had practical impact beyond the important role of facilitating information sharing among diverse people involved in internationalization and localization for (or at least directly relevant to) African languages. They were significant enough, I thought, to be listed under "Facilitating communication about localization" in African Languages in a Digital Age.

The ALDA book was not, however, the place to get into the history of these efforts. A little over 6 years ago, I gave some background about the lists that had been set up under Bisharat and the PanAfrican Localisation (PAL) project (predecessor to ANLoc) in a posting entitled "Some notes about all the lists in the sidebar."

Nor was ALDA the place to discuss specific plans with regard to those lists or more recent forms of social media. I'll take a quick stab at that now, along with other info per "More notes ...."

The "A12n" (Africanization of ICT) lists basically went offline beginning with closing A12-forum and A12n-entraide at the end of 2007, and then A12n-collaboration closing in mid-2009 when Kabissa could no longer host it. The smaller A12n-policy persisted a short while longer. All the traffic on these lists from the end of November 2004 is archived on A12n Archives. However, that leaves out early traffic on three lists, notably the very active first two-and-a-half years of A12n-collab. I am working on recuperating that to post as a file on A12n-archives.

The PAL lists are similarly preserved on PAL-archives.

The QuickTopic boards still exist for reference, but due to issues with spam, most have been closed to new posts. The exceptions are the three boards for the Nigerian "decamillionare" languages - Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba - which are still open. Last August, in the wake of Google Translate's most recent African language machine translation project, which includes these three languages along with Somali and Zulu, I posted on the three related QT boards to see what might ensue. Present thinking is that it's not clear there is a benefit in trying to sustain these as active fora.

There is a similar set of issues for other lists that I have started or co-founded... Like Multilingual_Literacy, which addresses a topic that still seems to me to be under-appreciated (approaches to literacy in school and out, in societies where people speak more than one language). AfrophoneWikis addresses a set of issues that is still very current, but the list is not so active.

So, I will be doing more cleaning of the sidebar soon.

One is left with the conclusion that email lists and discussion boards may have utility depending on the topic and user community, but that they require time and some strong effort to maintain as active communities. Their heyday seems to have passed, just judging (subjectively) by the generally lower traffic on many lists. But at the same time it's not clear that other social media - the Facebook group on African Languages for example - whatever their other advantages, can fill the same role for something like collaboration on localization.

An additional note. A few months ago, I added Google adsense to see what that might yield. It's an experiment, but one that hopefully does not detract too much from the overall presentation. So far it seems to be a waste of space.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Looking back and looking forward

For those who have read this blog before, it would come as no surprise that there has been a hiatus in posting followed by another post like this, breaking the silence. So with this I'd like to catch up and look ahead.

I last posted over three years ago, just before the International Mother Language Day 2010 - something I've paid attention to over the years. IMLD is also the occasion on which the winner of the Linguapax Award is given in recognition of "actions carried out in different areas in favour of the preservation of linguistic diversity, revitalization and reactivation of linguistic communities and the promotion of multilingualism." In 2013, Africa had another awardee, the Mauritian organization Ledikasyon pu Travayer (education for workers in Morisyen, the French-based Indian Ocean islands creole language of Mauritius).

However, last year, the first two (very distinguished) African recipients of the Linguapax Prize passed away - Neville Alexander of South Africa (Linguapax Award 2008) in July 2012, and Maurice Tadadjeu of Cameroon (Linguapax Award 2005) a few months later in December.

When I last posted on this blog in early 2010, Niger was in a muddle, politically speaking, and Mali was apparently a model; now Niger seems stable and Mali is recovering from a terrible year. I do not plan to spend too much time in this blog on issues relating to governments and conflict, though in some cases such issues will be hard to ignore. However the focus will continue to be on African languages and the "information society," along with related aspects of development and education.


During most of the rest of 2010 I was based in Djibouti, and had the opportunity to follow up on and observe some US military civil affairs projects in northern Uganda and eastern Ethiopia. From the point of view of African languages, what was particularly interesting was to note aspects of training of community animal health workers in Oromo language (''Oromiffa'') in the Harari region of Ethiopia, and in Karamojong (''ŋaKaramojoŋ'') in Moroto, Uganda (my third trip to that country). While English was also used in both cases, the first languages of the trainees (Oromo and Karamojong) were central to learning. (I compiled a list of veterinary and animal terms in Karamojong, cross-checked with several references.)


From late 2010 was back in the US with family again, and focused on different work and home priorities. In 2011 there were two conferences of note that had particular importance for applied work with African languages:
  • Conference on Human Language Technology for Development (HLTD 2011), Alexandria, Egypt, 2-5 May 2011. This was organized by PAN Localisation and ANLoc, with support from IDRC and was hosted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In a sense, this consideration of human language technologies (HLTs; understood to include a range of applications for manipulating and transforming languages) for development is the logical extension of efforts to localize software and internet content. It will be a key area to follow in coming years.
  • Action for Global Information Sharing 2011 (AGIS11), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1-2 December 2011. This was co-sponsored by the Localisation Research Centre and UNECA, along with others. Although technically not the first time for meeting of African language localizers with members of the localization industry, as a smaller scale meeting happened at the 2005 LISA Cairo conference almost exactly 6 years earlier), this was evidently much more significant in scale.

One noted with great interest the efforts of Translators Without Borders (TWB) in early 2012, which included a translation center in Kenya.

In July, I personally had the opportunity to participate in Wikimania 2012 in Washington, DC, including the Tech@State event on "" On the Wikimania proper side of things, there was a renewal of discussion concerning African language Wikipedias, including some discussion of potential links with a medical translations project (which not surprisingly has connections with TWB).


In 2013 I've been working in Asia for the first time in half a decade, this time in Afghanistan, coordinating survey research. This has obvious multilingual dimensions here, many of which are relevant to multilingual societies elsewhere in Asia and Africa. An aspect I've been particularly interested in exploring is "cross-language qualitative data analysis," which surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly, given how language is often a secondary consideration in other areas of endeavor, even when an obvious factor) has only relatively recently gotten serious attention.

Although I have limited time for it, have begun working again with the material from the Fulfulde Lexicon (1993). This entailed converting old files in WordPerfect 5.1 format (not as hard as it might seem, but not straightforward). A major part of the object is to prepare to integrate the material in Kamusi's online platform.

So with that brief retrospective, I'd like to resume but with a slightly different approach here on out - ideally shorter and more frequent posts, pivoting off of items of interest from diverse sources ...