Friday, October 17, 2014

Balancing Act Africa media survey and languages

Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a longtime virtual acquaintance, Russell Southwood of Balancing Act Africa. Russell and I have been in email contact since 2000 or so, when Balancing Act was establishing itself as an authoritative site on internet, media, and communications in Africa, and when I was developing the concept for Bisharat. And in 2001, the Balancing Act newsletter No. 69 featured an early article I wrote on support for African languages in text.

Russell and Balancing Act recently published the results of a 2013 "detailed market research study in seven Sub-Saharan countries [Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania] in the vanguard of adopting the Internet and social media," available via Balancing Act's issue No. 724 (19 September 2014). The report mentions languages in several parts, which I'll briefly touch on below. A key takeaway from the report is:
There is not a great deal of research on what language is used in relation to media in Sub-Saharan Africa: what does exist are largely academic studies from within the field of linguistics. (p. 6)

Overall, the report discusses trends in Africa that:
  • affect media and communication delivery
    • (5 areas) rise of social media; growth of feature & smartphone ownership; liberalization of media; mass media vs. niche audiences; and news
  • affect media and communication use
    • (4 "recurring patterns") urban vs. rural; education levels; income; and language
    • (5 country profiles) Ghana; Kenya; Nigeria; Senegal; and Tanzania
  • will affect communication and media over the next 5 years
    • (3 "known futures") more media & fragmentation; more devices; continuing growth of internet & social media
    • (6 "speculative futures") closing the rural media deficit; mobile media; edutainment; learning channels; public interest media; and online platforms with reliable info.
The subject of language(s) is touched on in several places. In discussion of "fragmentation" of radio and TV audiences, language specialization is mentioned as one possible characteristic of "niche" channels (another one is topical specialization).

In the context of what the report terms "the rural media deficit" (by comparison with urban areas), I read language as an implied factor. Likewise for education levels.

The importance of Africa languages is discussed at some length as one of four "recurring patterns" in a section entitled "Beyond Official Languages – Reaching People in Vernacular Languages." Here there are anecdotes concerning audience preference for or greater facility in use of what I'd call first languages and local lingua francas. It also mentions the role of media liberalization in facilitating formation of language specialized stations.

In discussing "known" future trends, an increase in African language broadcasting is foreseen. The possibility of social media platforms in major African languages is indicated as a possibility as social media use increases.

In general it is good to see the attention given to the linguistic dimension of media and communications in Africa. hopefully this will spur more interest in and research on the topic. A few quick comments bear mentioning:
  • The report cites the possible figure of 3000 languages in Africa. Indeed there are counts that go that high. However many groups of separately counted "languages" in such large figures may have high mutual intelligibility, and alternatively be considered by to be dialects or varieties of the same language. This is important for media in that often one language variety can be understood by speakers of close varieties in the broadcast radius. For example, when I worked in Djenné, Mali in the mid 1980s, I had Songhai-speaking co-workers originally from the Gourma-Rharous area of Mali who listened to the Zarma language broadcasts from neighboring Niger.
  • Further discussion of fragmentation of the media market and language-oriented niche stations would benefit from three perspectives:
    • the previous point about mutually intelligible languages;
    • the existence of so many cross-border languages in Africa (the previous point illustrates that too), which would add another dynamic to language specific broadcasts; and
    • the fact that many stations historically have divided their broadcast day among emissions in different languages of the audience (I've noted this on national level, official and commercial stations, as well as in community radio stations) - how might this approach blunt the "fragmentation" while serving different segments of clearly multilingual audiences?
  • The report uses the term "vernacular" in discussion of African languages. On one level this is technically correct, but on another, it is problematic, implying a lesser status form of speech. Personally I avoid it, especially after hearing a prominent African expert in African language policy criticizing another African for using the term (in French) to refer to African languages.
  • One gap for attention in future research is localization of content and software/apps in African languages. This relates to the mention in the report under social media futures of localized interfaces, as well as to wider use and usability of internet content for various purposes like education and extension as we move forward.

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