Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Wiktionary as a tool for African language learning

Wiktionary may sometimes be uneven as a reference, but how might it work despite gaps and errors - or even because of them - as a study aid for African languages? Here are some reflections on use of Wiktionary, the wiki dictionary in English, and Wiktionnaire, the French edition, in trying to keep my Fula (Fulfulde/Pulaar/Pular) and Bambara skills somewhat current, and possible lessons from this brief experience for teaching of these and other languages to second language learners.

For those not familiar with Wiktionary, it is the dictionary counterpart of the Wikipedia online editable encyclopedia, and also run by the Wikimedia Foundation. There are Wiktionaries written in 171 languages, according to the official count, of which 148 are "active," according to my count (the other 23 have been "closed" due to inactivity). In each language edition, there may be words and terms from any language, but defined in the edition's language. So, the English Wiktionary has entries in "over 1550 languages," but the navigation, definitions and categories are in English. Similarly, the French Wiktionnaire boasts terms in over 3800 languages, all defined in French.

Referring to a list of Wiktionaries by language families, one notes 25 African language editions, of which 16 are active (Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Hausa, Kinyarwanda, Lingala, Malagasy, Oromo, Sesotho, Somali, Swahili, Swati, Tigrinya, Tswana, Wolof, and Zulu), although some have only a few entries and translation of their user interfaces is not always complete. It is worth noting that the Malagasy edition is one of the three largest, due in part to an effort to automate adding of content (see here for background). Wiktionaries for nine African languages are closed or locked (Afar, Akan, Bambara, Kirundi, Shona, Tsonga, Twi, Xhosa, and Yoruba).

So as a first observation, a person studying an African language at whatever level may not find a Wiktionary edition in that language, and even if they do, they may not find much of use there. On the other hand they may find terms from the language they are studying defined in another language edition. For instance, the Hausa Wiktionary has only 62 entries, some of those empty or with English instead of Hausa definitions, but the English edition has over 400 Hausa terms - more but still not much (the French edition has 22). So, with other good materials for this language in print and online, why even bother with Wiktionary? The short answer is that due to its participatory nature, it can be a space for work that benefits learning - one's own and potentially that of others.

Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and African language study


I have long maintained that the participatory nature of Wikimedia projects in general offers potential uses in education. One approach is to have students "publish" or revise articles on Wikipedia that are relevant to class topics - this is actually an approach that some instructors have developed for use in university or even medical school classes..

In a short presentation at the African Language Teachers Association conference last April in Herndon, Virginia, I brought up a sub-theme of this idea: That intermediate and advanced students of African languages could stretch their language skills to write articles on various subjects in African language editions of Wikipedia - with guidance of their instructors - as part of their classwork. This suggestion is not to minimize the level of expression that could be used in these languages, but rather to combine giving students experience with helping fill gaps (often large gaps) in African language Wikipedias, where there is at least the potential for feedback on their contributions from native speakers.

Since I am not teaching, I have not been in a position to implement this idea, but considered how I might do this on the Fula and Bambara Wikipedias for my own review. However, working alone with rusty language skills in limited time periods, it has not been practical to use this approach.

Wiktionary on the other hand would offer opportunities to engage with the languages that interest me in shorter periods and on the level of vocabulary review. Unfortunately, as I indicated above, there are not currently any Wiktionaries in either Fula or Bambara, so I looked at what there was on these two languages in the English and French editions.

The idea of using Wiktionary in similar approaches is not new. An article in The Economist last year mentioned use of it for looking up words across languages, taking advantage of cross-wiki links at the bottom of the left hand column. Another article described use of the concept of "Wiktionary" with a different software for teaching biology terms within one language (English).

I chose to work on Fula words in the English Wiktionary, because there was a bit more there to work with than in the French Wiktionnaire, and since English is my first language, it is easier to deal with the wiki markup and template issues that I'd have to figure out along the way. And since there were already over 2400 Bambara terms in the French Wiktionnaire, I decided to take advantage of that resource by focusing on revising and categorizing. This made for two quite different experiences.

Structuring Fula entries on Wiktionary

I had actually done some edits to Fula and Bambara entries on the English Wiktionary earlier, but at the time I began to focus on Fula earlier this year, there were well less than 100 entries for that language. Since my experience with the language includes compilation of a Fulfulde dictionary, one of the first aspects I worked on was adding roots to the etymologies for several entries, then entries for roots, and a category for those root entries.

Entering terms on Wiktionary is not just a matter of adding a word and a meaning into a form. There is an expected structure, which is filled out in the wiki markup. In addition, certain templates may be used for parts of speech, plurals, and so on, and other markup to nest categories. For a complex language like Fula, with vocabulary based on roots and "infixes," some 26 noun classes, and initial consonant changes, elaborating that structure turns out to be the main issue.

Another structural issue was setting up templates for the plural forms of nouns. Fula plurals often take a form different from the singular, involving initial consonant changes in some cases, and different endings. The plurals also belong to one of their own classes (four of the 26 classes are for plurals), so that a good template will facilitate entering singular form, its determiner (which is also the class name), the plural, and its determiner/class.

Yet another issue is setting up a standard page for verbs. Fula verbs occur in three "voices" and are quite regular in conjugation, with no differences among the persons, except for initial consonant changes for some consonants in plural form. But setting up the tables for conjugations in Wiktionary seems to be somewhat involved.

A further complication is the fact that Fula has several varieties (some consider them dialects; Ethnologue classes them as separate languages), and some words or forms may differ in one or more varieties. Setting up a way of indicating this, and listing references, was not difficult.

In sum, much of my limited effort on Fula entries of Wiktionary has been devoted to necessary foundational work on the structure of articles, and slowed by the need to learn some of the more advanced wiki markup. So as a tool for review, it has so far been of limited use so far, and I unfortunately could not recommend it at this point for learners of Fula.

Random pages in Bambara on Wiktionnaire

For Bambara, I was happy to find that there was significant content already on the Wiktionnaire. This has made it an ideal site for review, especially taking advantage of the "Page au hasard par langue" (random page by language) click-on in the sidebar. Using this feature is like flashcards, though with the definitions right there. (I actually wonder if one could not set up a special flashcard mode for random pages, to facilitate use of Wiktionaries for vocabulary learning and review.)

Whether via the random page or other look-up, I've reviewed and often modified entries, consulting online and print references as necessary. I've also worked with the categories, which once set up is a great way to review semantically related terms. So for instance if I come across a word related to agriculture, and add it to that category (Catégorie:Lexique en bambara de l’agriculture), I can immediately open the category and see other terms. For category organization, it has been easy to consult that used for French.

Bambara is not complicated in the same way as Fula (simpler morphology, no classes, no conjugation), so entries are easy to set up and modify. It has been possible to accomplish a lot in short sittings or even on a mobile device. As such, I would recommend it for use by learners of Bambara. Advanced students may be able to expand, correct, or create entries - basic knowledge of wiki markup would suffice.

Wiktionary in the African language class

Any plan to use Wiktionary as an activity in classes would have to be preceded by evaluation of the language material and whether the structure (categories, templates for special features) would facilitate students actually getting something out of the effort. I believe my personal experience shows some of the challenges and potential of using Wiktionaries for learning and review of vocabulary.

What of other online dictionaries? Could contributing to Kamusi for example also be of use to learners? One advantage is that it has is no wiki markup to learn (see this comparison for other differences). I hope to come back to this in a future posting.

1 comment:

Don said...

There was a brief discussion on Wikimedia-L about the idea of a flashcard function for Wiktionaries.