Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does spelling matter in Malinke ebola materials?

An earlier post looked at problems with non-standard Bambara in an ebola poster. Here I'll look at similar issues with a poster in Malinke (Maninka), a closely related Manding language spoken mainly in upper Guinea, and also southwestern Mali.

The Malinke poster at right is a translation of a CDC poster on ebola symptoms, one of various different materials translated into a number of languages by Translators Without Borders. It appears to be written in the old, pre-1985 Guinean orthography with some French spellings.

After independence, Guinea adopted a common alphabet to transcribe all its languages, using the keys available on the typewriters of the day. Many people learned to read and write with these spelling rules (I personally encountered people and Pular materials using this system, and used it myself, in the mid-1980s), and to some degree their use persists.

When the government transitioned after the death of longtime president Sékou Touré in the mid-1980s, Guinea adopted an orthography harmonized with that of the other countries of the region. For Malinké that meant for example the following changes: dyj ; èɛ ; nhŋ ; nyɲ ; öɔ ; and tyc (the latter sound is represented by "ch" in English and variously by "tch" or "thi" in French).

The French writing influences in the poster are dj instead of dy or j, and ou instead of u. The accent aigu on é in the poster is probably gratuitous (the letter e in the old and new Malinke orthographies indicates the same sound) - unless a tone was intended by the writer (Manding languages are tonal, but usually tones are not marked in writing them in Latin-based script).

To see what the current orthography would look like, a simple set of substitutions would be straightforward, however I'm not sure on some word divisions (what knowledge I have of Bambara is an imperfect guide for that task).

The product as is, is presumably readable - and read-aloud-able - by many in Guinea since it is based on the older transcription. I don't have information on how widespread use of the new orthography is, but that is a question that should be considered.

And to the extent it is used consistently, conversion to the new system would be easy - which would facilitate use with Malinké populations outside of Guinea, or comparison with materials in other Manding languages (for terminology development etc.). Malike is also written in the N'Ko script (which has been the subject of some previous posts) - transcription between that and the Latin-based systems for communication or for comparison  is not as simple.

So in answer to whether spelling matters - yes, especially if the material is to be re-used or reviewed in comparison to other materials in Malinke or in other Manding languages. The fact that there has been a change in orthographies adds a complication, but one easily dealt with if each system is used consistently. And as indicated above, the matter of relative knowledge and use of the old and new orthographies for Malinke - and other languages of Guinea - is a question.

Addendum (2 January 2015)

I am told that the ebola poster above has numerous mistakes. This again points to the need to review materials in African languages (per "2Ds & 4Rs"), preferably before publication.

See also follow up posting: "More on written Malinke."

Friday, December 26, 2014

When do Liberian languages bear mentioning in ebola reporting?

A recent Oxfam piece about door-to-door ebola education volunteers in the West Point township of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, is an interesting story about local level efforts to combat the epidemic...
However it tells us nothing about the important linguistic aspects of this communication and research effort in multilingual Liberia. What languages does a volunteer like the profiled Agnes Nyantie use in speaking with various people in West Point? What kind of training did she and colleagues receive in those languages? When she "meticulously" fills out visit forms, is she doing so verbatim, or translating from one spoken language to another written one (presumably English)?

It may be that all is done seamlessly in English (the official language), but given that Liberia is a country where 31 languages are spoken (per Ethnologue), that no first language is spoken by more than 20% of the population (per Aménagement linguistique dans le monde), and standard English is spoken by only about 20% of the population (per Fact Monster), that seems unlikely.

Liberian (Pidgin) English is spoken as a second language by around half the population, playing a role analogous to Krio in Sierra Leone, though not as widespread, and apparently not as standardized. So it may be that a lot of the conversations that would be part of work like that being done in West Point take place in the pidgin. However, would a non-standardized pidgin be used to fill out visit forms?

What about the first languages of Liberia in ebola work? They are used on radio stations, for instance. A story last October in Jeune Afrique highlighted local radio in first languages of Liberia, such as Bassa. A WHO/Africa story discusses traditional chiefs of the National Traditional Council of Liberia recording "several radio messages in different languages telling their people to take steps to avoid Ebola" - these recordings were also used on radio.

It would seem likely that these languages are used commonly in local level person-to-person interactions about ebola - whether of the sort described in West Point or in treatment facilities, etc.

However, given the lack of standardized writing for some languages (different situation from some other countries of the region) and use of indigenous scripts which are not yet fully supported on computers/mobile devices for writing some of them, there may not be much ebola messaging in text format - though that is a question to answer.

So back to the Oxfam article... Recognizing the importance of that organization's contributions to the fight against ebola, and the courageous work of local volunteers working with it to inform and research in ebola striken areas, it would be informative to have more details on the linguistic dimensions of their communication and survey efforts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ebola materials in Temne (Temen, Themine, Themne, Timene, Timini, Timne, Timmannee)

Temne translation by TWB.
Source: International SOS.

A posting on this blog in September featured an ebola message in several languages of Sierra Leone, but not Temne, which is widely used mainly in the north of the country (over a million speakers). Here I'll highlight some ebola materials in Temne (with notes about the name of the language at the end).

First is a translation of the the widely translated and circulated ebola poster by International SOS (on right). This was dated October 7, and done by Translators Without Borders (TWB, which also was involved in producing Mende and Krio versions of the poster).

TWB also helped Humanitarian Response with production of Temne versions of "Social Mobilisation Key Messages" and "Messages for children and caregivers on Ebola - Child Protection and Education."

Other material I'm aware of is audio, beginning with Temne versions of the CDC's radio spots. These recordings - which now are in 17 African languages or varieties of those languages (aside from English and French versions) - have been mentioned several times previously on this blog. It is worth recalling that these audio spots are not accompanied by text version in these languages, and there is no information about the approach(es) taken to producing the translations.

Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO) has produced an animation on ebola, and one of the voice-overs is in Temne. SAWBO's products are available in formats for viewing on cell phones and computer (though there do not appear to be text versions / scripts available).

I am not aware of any material on ebola developed directly in Temne (written or recorded), although on the levels of national or community radio there may have been some significant use of the language in messaging.

What's in a spelling?

A quick comment on nomenclature. The name for the language is rendered in quite a few variant spellings (perhaps including some misspellings), several of which I've listed in the title. These have been observed on the web and/or taken from Ethnologue. Such variation in spelling can't help in managing information in the language. This is not problem unique to Temne (I discussed it in another posting), but seems to be a bit extreme in this case.

The most widely used spellings in English seem to be "Temne" and "Themne," although I remember hearing the language called "Timini" by a native speaker some time ago (the name in the language itself is apparently "Themnɛ"). Would it be possible to settle on one or two spellings that all organizations working in/with this language would use to refer to it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two more ebola posters in Bambara

Here are two other Bambara translations of the widely translated and circulated ebola poster by International SOS.

In a previous posting, I called attention to another version of the same poster in non-standard Bambara. Both of the ones discussed here use the current standard orthography, but also appear to be a better and more complete translations. However there are differences, which provide an opportunity to review them in comparison and ask questions about methods and outcomes.

The one on the left below was posted on Facebook on October 2 (original provenance not clear); the one to its right was translated by NGO Miriyawa and came from the International SOS site, dated December 1.

To facilitate parallel review of differences between the two translations, the headings (only) are presented in the table below - along the lines of what I did for the previous Bambara translation (which can be opened in a separate screen for comparison):

Tamashԑnw bԑ daminԑ tile 2 magalen kᴐ Ebolatᴐ walima a fure la
Tamasԑnw bese ka daminԑn tile 2-21 i magalen kᴐfԑ banabagatᴐ la walima a su la
Tamashԑn Kunfᴐlᴐw - Tamashԑn Labanw > Tamasԑn Fᴐlᴐ - Tamasԑn Wԑrԑw >

The differences show how different people or teams can come up with alternative ways of rendering the same text - presumably comparable in meaning, but not necessarily equal in accuracy or comprehensibility. Or, if the two were actually translated from different versions (for example, one from French and the other from English), this shows how that can result in different outcomes in the target language (Bambara in this case). It is useful in any event, I think, to first compare the two versions in terms of the language in which they are written: Leaving aside copy-editing issues (spelling; typography), how accurate and understandable are the alternative headings - and the rest of the text?

Going back a step, one question is whether there was any back-translation in either case to verify the accuracy of the translations. Also, what kind of proofing (copy-editing) was done on each version? There are some errors and inconsistencies, although probably not enough to affect meaning.

Another question is whether either of these versions were "field tested" to get an idea of how an average reader - or a listener to the text being read aloud - would understand and react to the text. And visually, how people react to the illustrations. If that was not done, it would be informative to field test the two versions together (perhaps adding the previously discussed one as well).

When doing translations for public education about a health emergency, there is obviously a concern with getting materials out there promptly. However, translation shouldn't be a "once and done" thing. I've previously outlined a case for review of materials (in the context of 2Ds & 4Rs), but review - including quality control - needn't delay initial roll-out of material. Some level of review can be built into the initial process, and then follow-up review can follow. In the case of Bambara there are several materials on ebola available now (remember also the MHOP/Dokotoro factsheet and the Bambara Wikipedia article), which could provide the basis for a more in-depth analysis of use of Bambara for communicating about this virus and other diseases.

Finally, a quick word about "banakisɛ," which appears in one of the above posters. Composed of "bana" (sickness) and "kisɛ" (seed), the literal sense seems very evocative, and in any case more tangible than the abstract loan "virisi." Definitely would wash my hands thoroughly to get rid of those banakisɛw.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Languages & communication in Senegal's ebola success

Ebola prevention poster in Wolof.
Y'en a marre and An@fa
Source: TWB via Alexandria blog

Senegal was declared ebola-free in mid-October, just before a similar declaration for Nigeria. Having previously looked at languages and communication in Nigeria's success, this post will do the same (belatedly) for Senegal. Language is a key consideration in ebola messaging in the multilingual states of West Africa, even if that fact is sometimes overlooked (such as by a National Geographic article on four lessons from Nigeria and Senegal, or a US Embassy Dakar sponsored conference for journalists on responsible ebola reporting).

By way of background, French is the official language of Senegal, and Wolof the most widely spoken. Of the country's 38 languages (by Ethnologue's count). Wolof and five other languages - Jola (Diola in French spelling), Malinke, Pulaar (as Fula is known there), Serer, and Soninke - are the main national languages. I'll return below to more detailed discussion of categorizating indigenous languages in Senegal, as it could be relevant to planning messaging strategies in similar multilingual countries like Mali, which is the latest country in the region to have an ebola crisis.

Enter, ebola

Prior to the sole ebola case in the Senegal - an infected man who came from Guinea to Dakar before the closing of the Guinea-Senegal border on August 21 (he ultimately recovered) - the country had been "well-prepared with an Ebola response plan as early as March." From what information I've been able to gather, information and public education aspects of this plan used a number of languages, but mainly Wolof and French. (An earlier posting included some links to videos and other web-based info in Wolof and Fula/Pulaar.)

A Senegalese source I consulted (Dr. Ibra Sene) indicated that Wolof and French were used in various media as part of the "massive campaign" to educate people about ebola. However, a report in International Business Times (25 September), characterized radio and television broadcasts of ebola prevention messages as "all day long, in all languages" (without specifying which). If the latter is accurate, it is likely that local community radio stations extended the campaign in additional languages (more on community radio below).

Still, an SIL-led initiative for translation in southern Senegal was a response to the perception of insufficient attention to communicating about ebola in less-widely spoken languages. It focused on developing ebola materials in the Bandial Gusilay, Jola (Jola-Fonyi), and Manjaku languages of Casamance. Two expat literacy workers in Senegal who facilitated the workshop, Clare Orr and Elisabeth Gerger,  framed it this way
"These days, a lot of awareness-raising about Ebola is going on across Senegal on the radio and TV. However, many people in the villages don't speak enough French, Senegal's official language, or Wolof, the most widely-used national language, to understand the message well. This is why we are trying to reach them through documents and information in their own languages. Those who are able to read in their language can always read the information aloud for those who can't."

 Community radio

Community radio is a key component of development communication in much of Africa (see here and here, for example), including Senegal. A grant by OSIWA in September to the Senegalese Union des Radios Associatives et Communautaires (URAC) for an ebola education program on 73 radio stations reflects the importance of this medium.

A couple of articles have highlighted community radio broadcasts about ebola in first languages of other countries - Guinea, and Liberia and West Africa in general - so one may assume that something similar has been happening in on community radio stations in Senegal. Questions relating to African language broadcasts about ebola on community radio include: which languages?; how was the material developed/translated?; and is any of it available in recordings or transcriptions?

An interesting dimension of communication via local radio in West Africa is that of associated radio listeners' clubs. The UN FAO noted use of these (and a training for club leaders) to address ebola in communities in Senegal.

Social media

On social media, an interesting initiative launched at the end of August as a Facebook group called SenStopEbola, with an associated Twitter account @senstopebola, translated notices and advice on ebola into seven Senegalese languages (see also here; the languages were not specified, but presumably included French and the 6 main national languages). .

Senegal made use of SMS to send text messages about ebola, but reports I've seen have not indicated what languages were used or the content of messages. Also, it's not clear whether the multilingual GooglePlay app - "About Ebola" (which was created last April, and mentioned in a previous posting on this blog) - is counted as part of this effort. Another GooglePlay app, SenStopEbola, which is evidently related to the initiative on Facebook, was mentioned as having Wolof content, but again, no information on how it has figured in wider efforts.

The national languages of Senegal

Of the 38 languages of Senegal, the six most widely spoken - Wolof, Pulaar, Seser, Soninke, Malinke, and Jola - were denoted "national languages" first by presidential decree in 1971, and are specifically named as such in the Senegalese constitution of 2001. The constitution allows for other national languages once "codified" (which includes establishing an "official" standardized orthography).

From 2001, the policy has been to expand the number of national languages, and to that end, several others were codified by 2002: Hassaniya Arabic; Balanta; Bassari (a.k.a. Oniyan); Manjaku; Mankanya; Noon; and Saafi (a.k.a. Safen). Codification of others has apparently proceeded since then.

The result is three "groups" of Senegalese languages that reflect history and number of speakers (without implying a hierarchy of value):
  • Those recognized early as national languages, which tend to have the largest numbers of speakers, and for which there is some notable amount of written material.
  • Those codified more recently, but which still need further research 
  • Those still needing further study towards codification.

Such a grouping of languages in a multilingual state might be a useful parameter to consider when planning out messaging on health topics such as ebola, or other development communication. The first group is readily used, with standard orthography, perhaps also having resources available to consult on the subject area involved - and it reaches the largest number of people. It may be possible even to work on materials outside of the country. The second group may require more effort, including consultation with experts in country. The third may require work mainly on the local level, and where there is not time to develop a standard orthography, use of phonetic transcriptions.

The experience in Senegal may have followed the above to a degree, but further information is needed. In any event, the first group is divided between Wolof, which was widely used, and the other 5 established national languages, which presumably had varying use (ebola info in Pulaar was on the web, for instance, and the others were  probably used on community radio).

Spelling again

As a small contribution to review of ebola materials, the ebola poster in Wolof above has one apparent misspelling - "Fagaroul" - with the French "ou" taking the place of the Wolof "u." It is interesting to note, however, that the same title and spelling is used on the French version of the poster (i.e., a Wolof title, with French influenced spelling, on a French language ebola poster).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Keeping African languages out of African schools?

Humiliation of Ugandan students who speak their mother tongue in school, and Malawi's recent decision to move to an English-only instruction policy, reflect the continued low status of African languages in African education. In much of Africa, the first languages of students are formally excluded from African schools by national policies, and/or accorded low or even negative value in school culture. In the extreme, this situation can be seen in terms of denial of human rights (per work by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas), but in any event seems to run contrary to ample research on the benefits of  learning in the mother tongue and of bilingual education.

"Why are schools punishing children for speaking African languages?"

Punishment for speaking Luganda at school.
Image from Facebook via
A recent article by writer and lawyer Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire called attention to ongoing practices in some Ugandan schools of humiliating students who speak African languages. A particular example is requiring students caught speaking a language other than English to wear a sack, until they catch one of their peers transgressing the English-only rule, who will then have to wear the sack.

This is not a new linguistic human rights issue, nor a practice limited to one country. It extends back to colonial rule, though enforcement of "no vernacular" has evidently moved from corporal punishment by teachers to humiliation and enforcement by students. I previously mentioned this in a 2008 blog posting entitled "Burning textbooks, beating schoolchildren."

New "English-only" policy in Malawi

In a decision made last March by then Malawian Minister of Education, Lucious Kanyumba, changed Malawi's longstanding bilingual education policy to one where students will be taught in English only from day one of their schooling. The stated object of the change, which is now implemented, was to improve English language levels of students.

Previous language of instruction policy (per a 2000 paper by Henri G. Chilora) had all students learning in the national language Chichewa for the first four grades, and then shifting to English. However this policy, adopted in 1968, had the effect of eliminating other Malawian languages from schools (see Chilora's paper, and one by Misheck Dickson Issa and Shoko Yamada on perceptions of language of instruction policy).

The decision to move to English-only has been controversial, with arguments against it citing advantages of MTB/MLE, lack of teachers prepared to instruct in English, and questions about equating good English with good education. It elicited an early protest from students of Chancellor College. A good summary of the debate - which begins by acknowledging the students' action - is provided by Steve Sharra (a later version of this article was highlighted by Ndesanjo Macha in his blog).

A study by Helen Abadzi, Radhika Iyengar, Alia Karim and Florie Chagwira of Columbia University's Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development found that even if the goal of education was good English, it would make sense to begin teaching reading in children's first languages (which happen to be written with orthographies where letters have more consistent values than in English).

Language of instruction policy in Malawi has moved away from use of its children's first languages in stages - first using only Chichewa (national language, first language of a majority, and also a second language for some number) in the name of national unity, and now to only English (official language, first language of almost no one, and a second language for some number) in the name of better job opportunities.

Language of Instruction (LoI) in Uganda and Malawi

In the process of researching this blog post, I came across an article (actually a book chapter) that examines and compares language in education policies in the two countries mentioned above: Ismail S. Gyagenda and Wardah M. Rajab-gyagenda, "Examining Ugandan and Malawian Language of Instruction Policies From a Linguistic Human Rights Perspective," in Zehlia Babaci-Wilhite, ed., Giving Space to African Voices: Rights in Local Languages and Local Curriculum (SensePublishers, Rotterdam, 2014). For now I'll just pass on the reference, but one passage from the content available online leaves us with a relevant perspective and question:
"In the human rights approach [to language policy], language is a manifestation of one's identity and cannot be willy-nilly suppressed without deep educational consequences for the students as well as society in general. How do the LoI policies of Uganda and Malawi over the years fare within this human rights perspective?"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing Bambara right

How to compose text in the Latin-based orthography of the Bambara language of Mali? One question raised by an ebola poster in non-standard Bambara (see previous posting) is whether the modified letters (technically "extended characters") in the Bambara alphabet  discourage use of the standard orthography. There are two potential issues - fonts and keyboards - although noting use of standard Bambara in other materials, these are not the impediment they once were. I'll briefly discuss both below, after a quick intro to written Bambara.

Bambara orthography

The Bambara alphabet today includes the following characters:
a  b  c  d  e  ɛ  f  g  h  i  j  k  l  m  n  ɲ  ŋ  o  ɔ  p  r  s  t  u  w  y  z

Digraph consonants (two letters to represent one sound) have been phased out of use, such that "ny" is now "ɲ" (in Senegalese orthography this would be "ñ"). However, "sh" is still used - although the IPA borrowing for this sound - "ʃ" - is sometimes seen (just today noted it in an email by odd coincidence). Double vowels however are used, for words where the vowel sound is slightly prolonged.

Bambara is a tonal language. The two tones are rarely marked, but when they are, accent marks are used. (A change in the alphabet some years ago from "è" and "ò" to "ɛ" and "ɔ" permitted marking of tones with accents rather than underscores for low tone).


Time was, the lack of fonts (and before Unicode became the dominant standard, character encoding behind the fonts and the lack of compatibility among different 8-bit fonts) presented the main problem for creating and sharing text in Bambara with the extended characters ɛ, ɲ, ŋ, and ɔ.

Font support for extended Latin characters is still uneven, though current operating systems can substitute a missing character from another font (all being encoded in Unicode). As I compose this posting, I note Blogger's default font lacking 3 of the 4 extended characters from the obvious substitution (per figure above from screenshot; background color added). On the other hand, the font for the published posting does include these characters. So no substitution is necessary.

Basically this means that most of the time, one can display the needed characters, but for aesthetic reasons, fonts that include all of those characters would be preferable. In finding fonts, it is helpful to know that the needed extended characters may be spread among several Unicode "blocks." For Bambara this means a font will have to have, in addition to the basic Latin blocks common to any font with Latin characters, the following extended blocks:
Latin Extended-A is fairly common in fonts, but not the other three above. (If needed, the "ʃ" and its capital form would be covered by the IPA and Extended-B ranges.)

Alan Wood's extensive list of "Unicode character ranges and the Unicode fonts that support them" is an excellent resource for finding fonts for specific Unicode ranges. (Sill looking for a resource that would allow one to choose several Unicode blocks and get a list of fonts that cover them.)


Since display of extended characters is no longer the impediment it used to be, the big issue now seems to be how to efficiently compose text with extended characters that are not supported by computer keyboards (i.e., not via inserting symbol in a wordprocessor or cutting and pasting characters from another source). This means use of alternative keyboard drivers or onscreen keyboards or character pickers.

In the latter category, there are a couple of websites worth noting. In both, one types from one's keyboard and then clicks on extended characters, producing text onscreen that can be copied and pasted elsewhere:
  • Lexilogos has a page for Bambara, featuring a window where one can type basic Lain characters and then click on the extended ones onscreen (and diacritics for accents).
  • Richard Ishida has a more complex IPA Character Picker enabling input of many more extended Latin characters.
Keyboard drivers enable one to use one's existing keyboard in any application. These generally use either Tavultesoft Keyman or Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC). A short list of links to current keyboard drivers useful for composing in Bambara follows (with thanks to Valentin Vydrin, who shared this on the Translating Hope list). I'll add to this but encourage comments with additional information:
  • Via Mali Pense site (see under "ÉCRIRE LE BAMBARA - ka bamanankan sɛbɛn"). Note also a spell checker ("vérificateur orthographique"; see under "POUR ÉCRIRE SANS FAUTES - Fililatilennan sɛbɛnni na")
  • Via LLACAN site (see under "Saisir des caractères spéciaux sous windows.")

Monday, November 24, 2014

Does spelling matter in Bambara ebola materials?

International SOS ebola poster in Bambara
A Bambara version of an ebola information poster - one of a number of translations of an original done by International SOS - shows why review of technical health materials translated into or composed in African languages is necessary (per "2Ds & 4Rs"). While giving due credit for the translation, it is also important for the common ultimate goal of communicating about ebola in the most widely spoken language in Mali to offer constructive criticism towards improving this product and guiding similar efforts.

In the case of this poster, it is immediately apparent that the standard Bambara orthography is not used. This is important since the standard orthography is used in adult literacy, some primary education, and various publications including on ebola and other health related topics. In a previous posting on this blog - "More on standard orthographies of African languages"- I discussed in more detail the reasons to respect and make use of the alphabets and rules of spelling adopted in many African countries for writing their languages. In the case of critically important health information on a deadly virus, adherence to standard ways of writing, as well as to as much standard terminology as there may be, would seem obligatory.

The resolution of the poster available at this time (from an image accompanying a tweet embedded below, which also includes a French version) is not sufficient to review the content in detail, but is is possible to provide some tentative revisions to the headings (see below the embedded tweet).

Proposed revisions

Here are the original headings from the poster followed by tentative revisions. In this I have relied on my rusty knowledge of Bambara with reference to the online dictionary at Any corrections or better renditions are invited:
(NB- Doubled vowels are pronounced differently than single ones. "Baana" by itself may mean "rich person," although the context here would tell one that what is meant is "bana"=disease.)
(NB- Clear influence of French orthography - further comment below)
(NB- Bambara has a 7 vowel system; "ɛ" and "ɔ" are different from "e" and "o")
(NB- Some issues with nasalized terminal vowels, which are indicated with an "n" following:  "bɛ" is generally not written with a terminal "n", but it may be that the writer hears the open-e ("ɛ") as nasalized; on the other hand, "mun" [what] is written with a terminal "n", though in common speech, the nasalization may not be heard. Also, "ni i" [if you] is often contracted as "n'i".)

Bambara in French orthography?

It is possible to write Bambara (or any language for that matter) in French orthography. The New York Times, for instance, used the French spelling of the Bambara and Manding term "jatigiya" (basically meaning hospitality)  - "diatiguiya" - in two recent stories on ebola in Mali (on Nov. 10 and Nov. 12). And it is true that Bambara speakers schooled only in French (which for long has been the general rule in Mali) may resort to orthographic rules of the latter when transcribing their first language - although it should be pointed out that this often results in different spellings based on the user's hearing and rendering of sounds. This juxtaposition of a language (Bambara) with a historically recent standardized written form, and a large number of the literate population taught only in a second language (French), raises legitimate questions about how best to render Bambara in print for ebola messaging.

However the fact that Mali has chosen a particular orthography (much like that used for similar Manding languages in neighboring countries in the region), and that people taught to read the language have been taught in this orthography, would support using this system rather than one based on French phonetics. Keep in mind that people taught to read Bambara in adult literacy classes or in mother tongue based bilingual schools would likely be in villages where they could read the material - aloud i necessary for any community members who cannot read it.

As an example of use of the Bambara orthography, note the translation of an ebola factsheet done by the Dokotoro Project and the Mali Health Organizing Project, which was highlighted in an earlier posting on this blog.

International SOS ebola poster in Yoruba
I also should note here that Bambara can also be written in the N'Ko alphabet, and that there are people literate in that instead or as well. Altogether this is a complicated situation similar to that in the rest of the multilingual West African region, but not one so complex as to make use of first languages and local lingua francas like Bambara in their written forms problematic for implementation.

Better localization also means pants

Translation also needs to be accompanied by attention to cultural appropriateness of the material and also, where images are involved, the visual literacy of the audience. Together, these considerations are part of full "localization" of material. It is worth noting in this context that when Translators Without Borders produced localizations of the same International SOS ebola posters in Nigerian languages, they added pants to the figures (which although abstract, appear in the original to be dressed only in t-shirts). A revised Bambara version should probably follow suit.

(For a discussion of technical aspects of producing text documents in Bambara, see the next posting: "Writing Bambara right." For two other translations of the same poster, which use standard Bambara, see:  "Two more ebola posters in Bambara." For a similar issue with a poster translated into the related Malinke language, see: "Does spelling matter in Malinke ebola materials?")

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Uganda ebola posters, in which languages?

Here are three ebola posters from Uganda - produced by the Health Promotion and Education Division of the Ministry of Health - for which I'm requesting help to identify the languages. Have had no luck with other channels so will post here and hope for input from a wider audience.

The three were part of a 3-page PDF document, which I converted into separate image files (these were also posted on Twitter):

1. Yega ebindi ebikwataine na EBOLA

2. Omanya ebikwete aha EBOLA


 3. Minya binene'bihambengene okwa EBOLA

There was a suggestion on Twitter by @IndigenousTweet that the language of the third one is Olukonzo.

Please feel free to add a comment if you can identify the languages of any of the three. 

Addendum (13 Nov. 2014)

A tweet from @IndigenousTweet offers tentative identification of the languages:

  • Rutooro is one of four closely related languages of southwestern Uganda, for which a common standardized version - Runyakitara - has been developed. It's worth checking whether the poster is actually in Runyakitara.
  • Lusoga is spoken in southern Uganda, to the east of the area where Luganda (to which it is closely related) dominates.
  • Olukonzo is also spoken in southwest Uganda and apparently also across the border in DRC.
A follow on question is whether these three posters are actually a subset of a larger number of translations with other Ugandan languages. (Am seeking more info, which I'll post when available.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Time for a Krio Wikipedia?

According to a recent tweet, one of the speakers at the recently concluded Localization World Conference in Vancouver (29-31 Oct. 2014), pointed out a specific need in the area of African language Wikipedia editions:

The speaker was probably referring to Krio, a creole language that is the most widely spoken lingua franca in Sierra Leone. In my limited understanding, the pidgin forms of Liberian English spoken in Liberia, however, are not the same, even as they share some characteristics. None of the above are spoken significantly in Guinea, the third country in West Africa most impacted by the ebola epidemic.

Nevertheless, this raises an important issue, since Krio is a language with a written form that is said to be spoken by 90% of Sierra Leoneans. It is evidently already used in at least some kinds of ebola communication, and would be a logical immediate focus for developing and disseminating further information on ebola and other health topics.

A response to the above tweet informs us that there is already the foundation of a Wikipedia edition in Krio:

So the next question is how to encourage development of this nascent Krio Wikipedia? Perhaps starting with ebola and other health-related info via the WikiProject Medicine's Translation Task Force and the Ebola translation task force?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Translating Hope - Health Education in African Languages

In order to facilitate networking and resource sharing on ebola messaging in (West) African languages, a new online initiative is in the works, consisting of an email list, with a web-based platform for collaboration coming. Watch this space for more information.

Addendum (3 Nov. 2014)

The web-based platform is now up. It uses the BlackBoard system, and is hosted by the University of Alaska - Anchorage (UAA). This and the email list are intended to work in tandem.

I have the privilege of collaborating on this with Dr. Catherine Knott (UAA, Anthropology), who was a volunteer in Peace Corps/Mali at about the same time I was, and her colleagues at UAA.


The aims of Translating Hope (Health Education in African Languages) are described in the following (this list is posted on the BlackBoard site, and may be updated and changed there):

Understanding the importance of language in communication and learning, the necessity of good public education and health training for ebola in areas of West Africa affected by the ebola crisis, and the multilingual characteristics of societies in West Africa, this informal working group is established to facilitate communication across and about needs and initiatives for effective communication and learning in the languages of the region.

This includes, among other purposes:

  • networking across diverse organizations working on ebola and those able to provide assistance with African languages (specifically translation and composition)
  • facilitating access to existing information in African languages
  • facilitating use of African languages in messaging by organizations, especially international donors, technical agencies, and NGOs (including via composition and via translation)
  • facilitating review, storage, and reuse of materials on ebola in African languages, including standardized language names and use of approved orthographies
  • facilitating work with cross-border languages with goals of harmonizing messages and standardizing terminologies
  • considering best practices for use of technology to deliver content in African languages, from radio to mobile, and including links between technologies
  • applying best practices for culturally sensitive and community approved approaches to messaging in African languages
This group also:
  • recognizes the importance of the official and international languages of the region - English, French, and Portuguese - even as it focuses mainly on African languages
  • respects the prerogatives of African nations, organizations, communities, and individuals concerning the use of their languages
  • respects the role of the African Union's African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) in working on cross-border vehicular languages of the region 


If you can contribute to this effort, and/or if your work involves messaging on ebola in West Africa, you may join by subscribing to the Translating Hope email list. Subscribers can then be given access to the BlackBoard site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two issues in use of African languages in ebola messaging

A recent tweet highlights two issues about use of African languages in messaging about ebola in West Africa: nomenclature, the names and spellings of the languages; and re-use of material in one language variety (or dialect) in an area where another is spoken.
(NB- "FLOTRG" = First Lady of the Republic of Guinea.)

The reference is to two of the eleven language names for radio spots produced for the CDC (which have been mentioned previously on this blog). "Madingo" is actually a misspelling of "Mandingo," which may refer either to: (1) one of the Manding languages known to its speakers as Mandinka and spoken mainly in Senegambia; (2) the Mandingo "macrolanguage," a subgroup of Manding languages in the west of West Africa, including notably Mandinka, and Malinké (Maninkakan) of Guinea and neighboring countries; or (3) the entire range of Manding languages, per older usage (in English).

Misspellings happen - I also noted a couple on the Ebola Communication Network site (since corrected) - but they also make it hard to locate information in searches. But, the apparent imprecision on the Manding variety in which the radio spot is recorded is another issue: these languages have a significant degree of mutual intelligibility, but material in one of them on technical or sensitive topics will not necessarily be understood as intended by speakers of other varieties.

On the latter topic, Mary Crickmore, a high school classmate who later on took a different path to learning and working in Fula in Mali than I did, noted in correspondence how Fulfulde translations of sections of Where There is No Doctor ran into issues with some anatomy terms when tested in different parts of the country. I personally noted similar issues in shifting from Fulfulde in Mali to Pular in Guinea.

This is not to say that material developed for one variety of a language (or one of a group of close and mutually intelligible languages) cannot be used in others, but that attention to differences of expression and vocabulary is essential to being understood as one intends, so it is helpful to be clear about the specific language variety(ies) involved. (The flip-side of this issue is how materials and terminology developed separately in different varieties of a language can be compared and harmonized, which requires awareness about the relationships of languages.)

So possible re-use of the CDC radio spots in other countries where the languages are spoken (as suggested in the tweet above) would require review and likely a "localized" version to re-record. This in turn would benefit from access to scripts for such radio spots, or where these were not used or are not available, transcriptions, of the audio. (See 2Ds & 4Rs on this blog for further discussion.)

As for "Fullar," it is not a term I have encountered, but it clearly refers to "Fula" (or "Fulah" with that random or gratuitous "h") and "Pular" (the main endonym for the language in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau). Fullar in any event is not a standard term, and as such, would likely not be found in searches. (The case of names used for Fula is complicated enough already, without adding another term!)

The CDC radio spot webpage also lists "Themne" for "Temne" - the former is a known alternative spelling, and seems to be another case of the "random/gratuitous h."

Non-standard terms or spellings pose the same problem for searches that misspellings do. So, as more work is done on ebola messaging in African languages by diverse governmental, intergovernmental, nongovernmental, and academic organizations, there will be a need to catch instances where corrections are needed. Recourse might be made to the coding and names in ISO-639, as an available set of standards.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Wikipedia, ebola, and African languages

MTP/TTF logo
An article in the New York Times, "Wikipedia Is Emerging as Trusted Internet Source for Information on Ebola" (26 Oct. 2014), mentions translations of a main article on ebola "into other languages" - from English being understood. Those translations are coordinated through the Medical Translation Project / Translation Task Force (MTP/TTF) of the WikiProject Medicine, the WikiProjectMed Foundation, and Translators Without Borders.

This post will briefly spotlight this translation effort, and what it has meant so far for African language editions of Wikipedia. First, however, I'd like to say that it is good to see the WikiProject Medicine and its head, Dr. James Heilman, receive this attention. Their current work on expanding available information about ebola is important and useful. I was also interested to learn from the article that the project was actually started a decade ago by Dr. Jacob de Wolff - making it a another lesson in the life cycle of ideas and their application.

The MTP/TTF began in 2011; I first learned of it at the 2012 WikiMania conference. According to its webpage, it has facilitated translation of over 600 articles into 100 languages. This is impressive, especially since these translations are the result of volunteer efforts.

However, progress on African languages* so far seems much less robust. The MTP/TTF monitors progress on translations under "full" articles and "short" (simplified) ones, and within each category (accessible via tabs on its homepage) there are several numbered groups (breaking the languages down into manageable numbers for display in table format).

Under progress on the "full" articles, only 10 of the 30 current African language editions of Wikipedia are included (in group 7) - Chichewa, Hausa, Igbo, Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Shona, Swahili, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu - and of these Swahili has by far more translations than any other language (29 of 33 articles). Seven languages have nothing at all. (The article on ebola is not included for any language in this category.)

Under progress on the "short" (simplified) articles, African language editions feature in several groups (languages in italics are editions in "incubator," not full editions; there is some redundancy among the groups as accessed on 27 Oct. 2012):
Progress for most of these languages has been limited, though it is clear that there is a concerted effort for translation of articles on ebola.

However, it is also important to note that seven African language editions of Wikipedia - Afrikaans, Bambara, Ewe, Fula, Lingala, Sango, and Wolof ** - are not represented in any of the above lists. So it is good to note that Kasper Souren, who in 2005 played a pivotal role in getting the Bambara and Fula editions started, has just proposed an "Ebola translation task force" effort to promote translations in languages of West Africa, including facilitating an article on ebola in Bambara. Hopefully this initiative can, in addition to promoting translation of ebola-related information, also reinforce and expand the scope of the MTP/TTF to include all African language editions.

Ebola articles in African languages

Here's a list of African language editions of Wikipedia with ebola articles (26, by my count, as of 28 October): Afrikaans; Akan; Amharic; Bambara; Chichewa/Nyanja; Ewe; Fula; Hausa; Igbo; Kikuyu (Gikuyu); Kinyarwanda; Kirundi; Luganda; Oromo; Sesotho; Sesotho sa Leboa (N. Sotho); Setswana; Shona; Swahili; Swazi; Tigrinya; Tsonga; Venda; Xhosa; Yoruba; Zulu


Another resource of possible use in facilitating translation (and creation) of articles on ebola and related health and social issues for African language editions of Wikipedia is the "AfrophoneWikis" list. This was founded eight years ago, following the WikiMania 2006 conference, during which both Kasper and Martin Benjamin of Kamusi delivered presentations on support for Wikipedia development in African languages.

* Although Arabic is an African language, spoken natively in North Africa for centuries, it has resources and enjoys a level of support typical of world languages. For purposes of this blog post, I am not including it in the discussion.
** There is also a Wikipedia edition in the Twi language, which is generally considered part of Akan.  
NB- This article edited on 5 November to add the Lingala edition.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Languages & communication in Nigeria's ebola success

In a comment to my posting on possible roles of language and miscommunication in the tragic murder of 8 ebola campaign workers in Womey, Guinea, Charles Chukwuemeka Okolie commented on the Nigerian experience, noting that the "Ebola message was given in more than 100 languages including the tiny minority tongue[s] both in the print and electronic media." Now that Nigeria has been declared ebola-free, some more details are being reported about ebola messaging in Nigerian languages.

For example, an article entitled "Ebola-free: How did Nigeria and Senegal do it?" the Los Angeles Times today mentioned public awareness campaigns on ebola in Nigeria in which "Information was communicated in multiple languages via radio, television, social media, text messages and a large electronic billboard in the center of Lagos."

Another current article, "How Nigeria prevented an Ebola epidemic" in Medical News Today (MNT) mentioned language use in the context of the Nigerian authorities' quick response to the ebola threat: "House-to-house and local radio campaigns - using local dialects - explained the risks, how to take personal preventive measures and what was being done to control virus spread."

A recent article in the Globe and Mail, "Ebola: How Nigeria and Senegal stopped the disease ‘dead in its tracks’," explains further:
"In Nigeria, social mobilization teams went house-to-house to visit 26,000 families who lived within two kilometres of the Ebola patients. They explained Ebola’s warning signs and how to prevent the virus from spreading. Leaflets and billboards, in multiple languages, along with social-media messages, were used to educate the broader Nigerian population."
And an IRIN article last week, "Ebola and the media – Nigeria’s good news story," provides a different perspective, implying primarily English use on internet and mobile devices, with Nigerian languages prioritized on other media:
"Nigerians who do not have access to the Internet and mobile phones have not been left out of the Ebola campaign. Traditional mediums like radio, flyers, posters, village meetings and announcements by town criers are all being used. Priority is given to local languages.

"Comparing the traditional methods of campaigning to social media and SMS campaigns, Nwokedi Moses, better known as Big MO, a vernacular language broadcaster with Wazobia FM, said the two approaches worked well together. 'The social media Ebola campaign was massive, but it complemented the traditional media. This is due to social media’s limited reach within rural areas.'"

Not overnight

Nigeria's success in multilingual ebola messaging evidently benefited from existing capabilities, including those developed in anti-polio campaigns (according to the MNT article cited above). Also, according to Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs director Susan Krenn (as paraphrased by CNN in an article yesterday, "Using music to fight Ebola in Liberia"), there have been in the past various family planning and anti-malaria programs on the state and city levels in Nigeria, in its "four main languages" (these are not specified, but probably include English, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo).

Nigeria also has prepared specifically for messaging on ebola. For example, last April, Nigerian health minister Onyebuchi Chukwu was quoted in a Xinhua article, "Nigeria not safe from Ebola virus: health minister" as saying:
"So Nigeria is in danger but we have recently said fine that in addition to the leaflets that we are producing for lassa and other hemorrhagic fever, we will now emphasize Ebola fever. As I speak to you, we have already approved for jingles to be produced in various languages produced for Nigerian Center for Disease Control to be aired on Radio, Television and newspaper adverts,"

What now?

There are several questions:
  • Which languages were used in ebola messaging? 
  • How were health workers who went house-to-house trained for messaging in the languages they would encounter?
  • What kind of materials have been developed in these languages and how are they being stored and made available for other ebola efforts? These would include not only items published for distribution, but also scripts for broadcasting and materials for instruction.
  • Most of the above information apparently concerns official (different levels of government in Nigeria) response. To what extent did international partners also contribute to ebola messaging in Nigerian languages? (The collaboration between Translators Without Borders and the Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters was mentioned in a previous post on this blog.)
  • Are there lessons from this experience for other countries in West Africa?
This brief article focuses on Nigeria's success, which is not to overlook that of Senegal. I hope to be able to post soon on how Senegal handled ebola messaging in its languages.

NB- Some additional edits were made to this article after posting, on the same day.