Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ethnologue: "National" and "Principal" languages in Africa

Since raising the issue of Ethnologue's use of the term national language last December, that resource has undergone some revisions. Among the changes is replacing the problematic heading of "National Languages" (problematic because it is used in various distinct ways) with "Principal Languages" on the "Country" tab of the country information pages.

This is a positive step as far as it goes (I'll come back to that below), but the new heading raises new issues. I believe these are important to review since Ethnologue is a major reference on the world's languages, and as such its presentation of data will influence how people (especially those from outside the region concerned) understand or misunderstand linguistic situations, with the potential to influence approaches taken to extension, public education, training, etc. for emergencies like the ebola outbreak in West Africa.

What counts as a "Principal language"?

A  reader looking up information on the languages of Niger would first come to the "Country" tab of the Niger page (a screenshot is pictured). On it, they would see under "Principal Languages," one language, French. A logical assumption the reader might make is that this language is unambiguously the "most important, consequential, or influential" (per Merriam-Webster.com's definition) in the country. But what of Hausa, spoken by perhaps half the population as a first language, which Ethnologue itself notes is also "the main trade language of Niger"? Or Zarma, spoken by 18-25% of the population,* which although concentrated in the west of the country, represents a number greater than the number of French speakers (5-15% of the population)? The Peace Corps program in Niger for many years (before its closure) prioritized Hausa and Zarma language training for rural development volunteers since French, however important on the governmental level, was not as useful where they worked.

So where to draw the line in what is considered "principal" is a new problem. It turns out, however, that Ethnologue has a narrower definition of "Principal Languages":
"Languages that have been identified as having a function at the nation-wide level are listed here. This includes all the languages that function at the national level as a working language or a language of identity or both, whether this is by statute or is the de facto situation. For a fuller discussion, see Official recognition."
But even stated this way, couldn't Hausa, as the main trade language and one of Niger's statutory "national languages," still be considered a "principal language" in its own right? Also, from personal observation, Hausa as well as Zarma have been used de facto in local government work (as spoke languages), even though everyone knows French is the de jure language of governance. So there are several criteria on which one might add Hausa and perhaps Zarma as "Principal Languages."
In this regard, the treatment of  Senegal (another example used in the previous posting) seems even more problematic. Here too, only French is listed in the category "Principal Languages," although Wolof is the most widely spoken language in the country, as well as being statutorily a national language

Similarly, in Mali, Bambara is most widely spoken, and by a number of people larger than those speaking French. It is also statutorily a national language.But only the official language French is listed among "Principal Languages."

Part of the reason for citing these examples is that by a common understanding of this new category "principal language," and arguably by a broader reading of Ethnologue's definition of the term, major languages other than the official one in some countries would seem to qualify. Certainly what one counts as "principal language" in many multilingual countries may depend on the criteria used, and a that in turn would depend on the intended application.

Levels of official recognition

One criterion in Ethnologue's treatment of "Principal Languages" in these countries is evidently the kind of official recognition involved. So in the case of South Africa, which has eleven official languages, all eleven are listed as "Principal Languages." Same for Chad's two designated official languages - French and Arabic.

However, for the Republic of the Congo, three languages are listed as "Principal Languages": French, which is official; and Kituba and Lingala, which are statutorily national and vehicular languages (which seems similar to Hausa in Niger, Wolof in Senegal, and Bambara in Mali).

What of countries where no language is designated in the constitution or legislation as official? (This is the case for quite a number of countries, including the US.) For Kenya and Tanzania, which each have English and Swahili as de facto official languages, both are "Principal Languages" for each.

On the other hand, the page for Sierra Leone lists only English (de facto official) under "Principal Languages" even though Krio is used more widely (by at least 90% of the population). Though not formalized, Krio in practical terms could be regarded as a "principal language" of the country, since it is so widely used and arguably serves in part as a language of identity (another criterion in Ethnologue's definition). English, on the other hand, is reportedly understood well by only 13% of Sierra Leonean women - how principal is it from their perspective?

An exhaustive review is beyond the purpose of this posting, but from the various examples, it seems that a narrow application of Ethnologue's definition for "Principal languages" on that important first page of country language information gives an incomplete picture of the linguistic reality in a number of African countries.

Suggestions regarding "Principal Languages"

Changing the heading "National Languages" to "Principal Languages" on the "Country" tab of Ethnologue's country information pages was a positive step for presenting first-glance information on the linguistic situations of multilingual African countries. A next step would be to review the criteria for giving languages that categorization. It might be useful to think of this as a way to give the readers a quick sense of the linguistic reality, which in multilingual states may be complicated, involving more than one language playing important roles in different ways.

Part of the problem is using a commonly understood term like "principal" in a very limited way, requiring the reader to find the specific definition and adjust their understanding accordingly. I suspect that many readers will, like I did when first looking at the page, assume the common definition of "principal."

Maybe a key would be to make the definition of "principal language" less dependent on the EGIDS framework. That would lead to another problem, mentioned above in the case of Hausa and Zarma in Niger - where to draw the line in a more flexible application of the term. One way to address this would be short annotation highlighting the criteria used. For example (not advocating this but giving as example), one could list for Niger: French (official); Hausa (main trade language). Or for Senegal: French (official); Wolof (most widely spoken). Sierra Leone: English (official); Krio (most widely spoken; identity). And so on.

"National language," cont'd

When one gets past the "Country" tab of the country information pages to the "Languages" and "Status" tabs, Ethnologue still uses "national language" in the way it previously did. This is again a question of nomenclature, important I would argue in the case of African countries that use the term in different ways (see the previous posting on this topic for a more complete discussion). Ethnologue has evidently reduced its use of the term "official language," so maybe "national language" could also be replaced by a term not already used in divergent senses or (like "principal language") carrying a generic meaning beyond that intended.

Concluding note

As in my previous posts about Ethnologue's content, I would like to stress that the purpose here is to offer constructive criticism and contribute to improving this important resource.

* There do not appear to be any published percentage estimates of speakers of Zarma (including closely related and mutually intelligible varieties of Songhai) in Niger. When I worked there in 2000-04, the common understanding was that 25% of the country's population spoke it (as a first language). Ethnologue's 2006 estimate of 2.35 million speakers would be about 18% of the 2006 total estimated population of 13.248 million.


M. Paul Lewis said...

Thanks, Don for taking another look at the country data and for providing us with this useful feedback. Our intent in choosing "principal" was to get away from the connotations and variability of both "national" and "official" in that summary statement. We have supplemented and greatly enhanced (I think) our description of those kinds of functions by using a much more nuanced set of descriptors which you can find here: http://www.ethnologue.com/about/language-status#FICLabels

On the country page, we SHOULD include any language that is tagged with one of the first six labels in that list. That would exclude regional trade languages, as important as they may be.

We continue to work on improving what and how we report information, so your observations are indeed helpful.

Don said...

Thanks Paul, I appreciate the feedback and look forward to further discussion.