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.

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