Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Two questions as the Language & Development Conference concludes

The 2017 Language and Development Conference (LDC) in Dakar wraps up tomorrow, 29 November. This blog featured a post about it last May.

As one who has long been interested in the importance of languages in development - which in Africa means attention to African languages (as obvious as that sounds) -  I regret not being in a position to attend. However I hope in the future to highlight some aspects of this LDC, the twelfth in a biennial series, and the third to be held in Africa.

In the meantime, here are a couple of questions for the conference as it concludes:

First, are there terms that participants think make sense to use for (a) the languages that need more attention in development work and research, and (b) for the languages that tend to dominate, often to the point of eclipsing first languages and local lingua francas in development processes and the developnent discourse? And how would one distinguish between one and the other?

Part of the reason for this question was reference to "colonial languages" in a tweet from the LDC:
While this is historically accurate, is it the best term today? I've tended to use "Europhone" in discussing those same languages (in the African context mainly English, French, and Portuguese) - is that more helpful? Or is Prof. Eyamba Bokamba's term "European languages of wider communication" (ELWCs), which I borrowed in African Languages in a Digital Age, better?

The point is having clear categories and names for them as a way of facilitating analysis and discussion of languages in development, education, etc.

The second question is an attempt to see progress in using diverse languages in the development process through the lens of concern about misuse of social media in widely used and well resourced languages such as English: Is there a point to which African languages - or more accurately content expressed in African languages - might become a problem?

There have of course been instances of inflammatory speech in particular languages, generally directed against different ethnic groups. There has also been misinformation, circulated in local languages, such as about the causes of and cures for ebola during the epidemic. But beyond that, could articulate use of diverse languages be directed at deliberately misinforming people in order to manipulate public opinion? Is there a risk that the good of doing more education and development in diverse languages could facilitate undesirable outcomes?

If so, how to proactively address this potential?

Lest this latter question become the gist for suggesting to limit speech to official "Europhone" languages (however we term them), please review the premise for the larger (second) question. We generally don't solve problems in the area of knowledge and opinion by limiting the languages used - and in fact such limitation is the cause of other ills (which I understand to be one of the premises for the LDC).