Saturday, December 28, 2019

AfricaNLP2020 (Addis Ababa, 26-4-20) & related items

Quick post to call attention to an upcoming workshop on machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) in African languages, and its call for participation. Also a list of related initiatives, including the Machine Learning and Data Science in Africa (MLDS Africa) forum.

AfricaNLP2020 workshop - "Unlocking Local Languages"

The AfricaNLP2020 workshop will be held on 26 April 2020 as part of the Eighth International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The workshop is describes as follows:
"The rise in ML community efforts on the African continent has led to a growing interest in Natural Language Processing, particularly for African languages which are typically low resource languages. This interest is manifesting in the form of national, regional, continental and even global collaborative efforts to build corpora, as well as the application of the aggregated corpora to various NLP tasks."

The workshop aims are described as:
"• to showcase this work being done by the African NLP community and provide a platform to share this expertise with a global audience interested in NLP techniques for low resource languages;
• to provide a platform for the groups involved with the various projects to meet, interact, share and forge closer collaboration;
• to provide a platform for junior researchers to present papers, solutions, and begin interacting with the wider NLP community;
• to present an opportunity for more experienced researchers to further publicize their work and inspire younger researchers through keynotes and invited talks."

Submissions "for oral and poster presentations on a wide variety of NLP tasks for Afrcan languages ...  will be evaluated and selected through a peer review process." Deadline: 1 February 2020. (They can be submitted via

Corpora-building, ML, MT, & NLP initiatives

The workshop page lists six collaborative effortson African languages, which I'll list below, as seen on their page, along with a seventh I learned about recently:
  • Niger-Volta Project - Speech Recognition, Language Identification, Machine Translation & Natural Language Processing for West African Languages 
  • - A Focus on Machine Translation for African Languages
  • - A crowdsourced dataset builder and community for NLP in underrepresented languages (apparently translating MS-COCO captions into Afrikaans, Amharic, Bukusu, Coptic, Fanti, Luganda, Luo, Masai, Meru, and Nandi)
  • - An initiative  to build a Natural Language Processing Platform for Kinyarwanda and to make it available to all developers and for all use cases 
  • EthioNLP - Ethiopian Natural Language Processing Research
  • AI4D - African Language Dataset Challenge - A community effort to help uncover and create African Language Datasets for improved representation in the field of NLP (see also an update on its "Dataset Challenge" from 23 Dec. 2019)
  • PidginUNMT -  Unsupervised Neural Machine Translation from West African Pidgin to English (this was written up on Techcabal on 16 Dec. 2019)
It's great to see this kind of activity related to language technology. I've often thought that multilingual Africa has the potential to lead and innovate in this area.

MLDS Africa

MLDS Africa is an online network with a Googlegroup for communication among research groups such as the above, and a webpage with info on upcoming conferences and workshops, like AfricaNLP2020.


The image above connected with the ICLR conference hosting AfricaNLP2020 came from a page on with details on papers accepted for the main conference as of 20 Dec 2019. (The workshops on the first day of ICLR, such as AfricaNLP2020, evidently have their own deadlines.)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Yahoogroups & African languages, follow-up

A quick follow-up to my previous message regarding the deletion of Yahoo Groups. In brief, the saga is still ongoing. This message will provide an update and mention other Africa - and especially African language - related groups (as maybe a missing dimension in this saga).

I've spent what time I could on the matter of saving the content of several groups of interest mentioned in the previous message. For AfrophoneWikis, Etienne Ruedin was particularly helpful in outlining possibilities and sharing downloaded backup files. And for Unicode-Afrique, Tafsir Baldé offered help and suggested a possible partnership with Idemi Africa. (See also below re Archive Team.)

In the meantime, Yahoo has extended the period during which users can request their data in downloadable form1 - and apparently also pushed back the date for pulling down the group pages - to 31 January 2020.2 The message content of the groups is no longer accessible now.

For the groups of interest, one question is what is the future of their content, and another is what future for those that are still viable. The data question is somewhat answered to the extent that individual users request their data, but Yahoo does not facilitate archiving elsewhere in such a way that would facilitate long-term access.

The larger question asked by many is why make this move in the first place. I won't explore that here, but it does highlight the problem of having such a big chunk of internet history subject to one corporation's short term interests.

The Archive Team's efforts

What's worse is that when a volunteer group - the Archive Team -  ramped up an effort to save Yahoo Groups, Verizon (Yahoo's owners) evidently worked to block such "mass-archiving" efforts. Hard to explain that.

It was only late during the scramble to do the necessary to save data (some of which had to be done manually) that I learned of the Archive Team's initiative for Yahoo Groups. And only now, digging deeper, did I realize that they had already archived a significant number of them on I was interested to see that those archives already included AfrophoneWikis, Unicode-Afrique, and AfricanLanguages.3 But they do not cover all groups, expecially not the smaller ones.

Overlooked African dimension of Yahoo Groups?

One aspect of Yahoo Groups that I haven't seen discussed, but which over the years I got the impression was important, is significant use by Africans. In other words, Yahoo Groups was never just a European and "core Anglophone" platform. Yet there's not much of an African voice I'm aware of in this discussion about the end of Yahoo Groups.

Among the most active Groups founded and participated in by Africans that I've noted are OmoOdua ("Yoruba socio-cultural discussion forum," with 1660 members and more than 160K messages since 2007) and Mwananchi ("A current affairs forum on Africa and the issues affecting the continent," with 1541 members and more than 180K messages since 2000).

However there are many that are more modest in size, such as Internet-Niger ("Internet au Niger," with 589 members and just under 16K messages since 1999). So basically I'm suggesting that among the stories of who loses with the deletion of Yahoo Groups, one that isn't getting much if any play would be the large user community in or of Africa.

African language related Yahoo Groups

Among the groups of personal interest are the five I listed in the previous posting that deal in one way or another with African languages. Three of those - AfricanLanguages, AfrophoneWikis and Unicode-Afrique - are ongoing lists, although like most other Groups, much less active than they once were. The other two - A12n-archives and PAL-archives - were set up as back-up archives for lists whose original archives were then deleted some time later. Fortuitous to have had the back-ups, but it is ironic that they too got the axe.

So here I'll list a few other African language related Yahoo Groups that I'm aware of - most of them tiny in terms both of membership and activity. However they reflect a range of interests, even if they were not always as successful in this medium as their creators evidently had hoped.
  • Ethiopic (2001, 19 members, ~100 messages). It was "established to begin dialogue and understanding regarding the computer keyboard layout for Ethiopian Languages." Its ambitious goals were somewhat obviated by work elsewhere on Ethiopic/Ge'ez keyboards.
  • Kiswahili (2001, 993 members, ~50K messages). "A forum about the latest Swahili news." I did not have much to do with this list, but had the impression it had a lot of activity and much of it was actually in English.
  • Linux2Igbo (2004, 20 members, 174 messages). "This is a project that aims to translate Linux GUI such as KDE and GNOME and popular software such as Open Office, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird into the Igbo language." I was asked to serve as a moderator of L2I, and made some contributions (even though I do not speak the language).
  • Mandenkan_sebeli (aka Mandenkan sebe web ka; 2003, 6 members, ? messages). Intended to promote writing of Mandenkan (Manding languages) on the web. I don't recall that this group had any archived messages - indeed the Yahoo data I received had only links for it.
  • Mzi_kaPhalo (2001, 71 members, ~150 messages). It was "set up mainly to serve the Xhosa Translators' Community, however other Xhosa language issues can also be discussed." My impression was that it was active for a brief time then mostly quiet.
  • WowlenPular (2002, 7 members, 15 messages). Set up to promote the "survival" and use of Fula, with accent on the Pular of Guinea. I posted several of the few messages on this group, including some excerpts of texts from books in Pular.

Next steps

The data I got from Yahoo included .mbox files with all the message, link, and file content of thegroups I was subscribed to, including all of those mentioned above. In theory I think one could with these files reconstruct any group if one had a reason to do so and a new host for it. So that is one possible discussion for certain groups.

On the technical side, I am not sure how the versions saved on might be used if one wanted to continue a group. This question might be useful to explore.

For most groups, the most one may want to do would be to present the data in an easily accessible, navigable, and readable format. This could include many Yahoo Groups about (or in) African languages, and that could be another discussion. 

1. See Barbara Krasnoff's helpful article in The Verge, "How to download your Yahoo Group data."
2. Per "Yahoo is Extending It’s Deadline To Delete The Content Of Yahoo Groups,", 13 Dec. 2019. The wording was not so clear, but one had the hope that the message content online might also endure a while longer. That hope was not borne out.
3. These archives are organized in batches of groups, and the files for each individual group are available in gzip format. These apparently were saved over the course of a few years - AfricanLanguages for instance in 2016, Unicode-Afrique in 2017, and AfrophoneWikis in 2018.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Yahoogroups & African languages

Yahoo's decision earlier this month to cease hosting user-created content and archives of its Yahoo! Groups appears to mean a loss of another sliver of internet history, including substantive discussions about African languages. At a time when technology is being used to collect data in massive amounts, even on trivial matters, this seems hard to justify in the way it is being done, even if one understands the bottom-line calculations of Yahoo corporation.

Two immediate issues faced by the people connected with each Yahoo Group are whether and how first to preserve their group's message archives and other content, and second to continue the group as a list with another host. So I wanted to highlight a number of Yahoo Groups that deal (or dealt) with African languages in one way or another, and which will need help at least for permanent archiving before Yahoo pulls down the content in about 6 weeks (14 December 2019).

In this post I'll simply list a few of those that most interest me personally, with year of creation, number of subscribers, number of messages, and brief description. I may return to several of those and others in subsequent posts, all in the interest of preserving at least some of this history, and raising interest in archiving content in a way that makes it useful for future discussions and research. Keep in mind that the links in the list below will no longer function after 14 Dec.:
  • AfricanLanguages (1999; 134 subscribers; 1335 messages). About reading & writing African languages (in practice, includes many news items).
  • Unicode-Afrique (2002; 197 subscribers; 1599 messages). Discussion in French about Unicode, with accent on Africa.
  • AfrophoneWikis (2006; 99 subscribers; 756 messages). Wikipedia editions in African languages.
  • A12n-archives (2005; 2 subscribers; 1135 messages). Never an active list, this group archived traffic from several "A12n" lists with a total of about 200 subscribers.
  • PAL-archives (2006; 3 subscribers; 465 messages). Never an active list, this group archived traffic from 3 lists (in English, French & Portuguese, with cross translation) of the PanAfrican Localisation project.
I am aware of several possible ways of archiving Yahoo! Groups or transferring them to a new host. Any strong recommendations concerning one or another would be welcome.

(Image above by Jayson Willis, 2010, via

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

African languages as indigenous languages: Examples

In the previous post, "African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions," I looked at ways the term/concept "indigenous language" is defined and used (officially), and how those might apply in Africa.

This post will look at how "indigenous language," in one form or another, is used in various contexts relating to Africa. Also, since the context for this discussion is the ongoing International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), and the recent African Regional Meeting, I'll begin with discussions of African languages and IYIL2019.

African languages and indigenous languages in IYIL2019

At the beginning of the year, the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) conceived of IYIL2019 in this way:
"The IYIL2019 forms the perfect platform for SADiLaR to venture forward with awareness campaigns dedicated to the official languages of South Africa and their development."
— "2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages: Celebration of South African languages," SADiLaR (website; accessed 31 Jan. 2019)

Curiously, the way the above is phrased, it seems to leave out less-widely spoken languages of South Africa that are not among the 11 official languages.

An article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting on IYIL2019 includes numerous mentions of "indigenous languages," as one would expect. (None of the mentions seem to give an indication of what actually is included under this term.)
"Africa gathering celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019)," UNESCO, 5 Aug. 2019

An earlier article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting also has several uses of this term, of which the following seems particularly interesting:
"However, she [African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, H.E. Amira Elfadil] noted that in the context of Africa, the term 'Indigenous Languages' need to be replaced by 'African Languages' as the former 'has a colonial connotation.'"
— "Promoting Indigenous Languages - African Regional Meeting on the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages," UNESCO Liaison Office in Addis Ababa 31 July 2019 (posted 3 Aug.2019)

Aside from equating African languages with indigenous languages in Africa (regarding which, see also H.E. Elfadil's tweet below), this quote brings up a point I did not touch on in my previous post: the term "indigenous" itself is sometimes problematic in African contexts. That is particularly the case with the cognate in French, for historical reasons, such that IYIL2019 in that language is l'Année Internationale des Langues Autochtones. Nevertheless, as items cited in the two sections below appear to indicate, "indigenous language" is actively used in and with reference to Africa.

References to "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a number of quotes in which "indigenous language" is used in relation to Africa. This is a sampling mostly from web searches, for illustrative purposes. It was compiled using no particular methodology. (Emphasis added.)

"How many indigenous languages are spoken in Africa? 3000"
Languages in Africa (flashcards), Quizlet (acessed 22 July 2019)

"Africa is incredibly rich in language—over 3,000 indigenous languages by some counts, and many creoles, pidgins, and lingua francas."
Edmund L. Epstein and Robert Kole, eds. (1998). The Language of African Literature. Africa World Press. p. ix

"This chapter highlights the difficulties inherent in defining heritage languages for immigrant Africans in the various African diasporas and provides key arguments in favor of coalescing efforts for immigrant heritage language development in the diaspora around a few African national languages, rather than the many indigenous African languages."
Abstract for: J. Kigamwa (2018) "So Many Languages to Choose from: Heritage Languages and the African Diaspora.: In: P. Trifonas P. and T. Aravossitas (eds) Handbook of Research and Practice in Heritage Language Education. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer, Cham

"A greater task also lies in the homes where some parents adamantly refuse to speak their indigenous languages to their children."
Socrates Mbamalu, "The Fading Use of Indigenous Languages in African Households," This is Africa, 17 May 2018

"Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, especially among middle to upper-class African millennials and Generation Z."
Kwabena Taiwo, "Indigenous African Languages are Dying Out and it’s a Good Thing," International Policy Digest, 6 Jun 2018

"International Journalist's Network, working with the University of Lagos, has invited African media academics and publishers to submit research papers on the past experiences, current status, and future potential of the continent's indigenous-language media."
— "Study to Promote Indigenous Language Media in Africa," Cultural Survival, 2013?

"Cultural projects discussed included prioritizing publishing in indigenous languages in order to increase literacy, promoting free speech, and decolonizing existing institutions, such as textbook publishers and libraries—all of which are in various states of development by local African publishers and institutions, now with the additional support of the IPA [International Publishers Association]."
Ed Nawotka, "The Fight to Improve Publishing in Africa," Publishers Weekly, 21 Jun 2019

"Meanwhile, in Kenya two weeks ago, a new television station was launched to serve the Rift Valley region, home to the Maasai, Samburu, Pokot and several other indigenous groups. It will air primarily Christian programs, and will broadcast to local communities in 10 indigenous languages, including Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Gusii, Pokot, and Saboat/Marakwet."
— "Diverse Efforts Made to Promote and Preserve Indigenous African Languages," Cultural Survival (accessed 14 Aug. 2019)

I'll slip in a tweet here by UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, which has "indigenous languages" in a hashtag, and mentions "ancestral languages" and Hausa in the text:

Publication titles including "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a few book and article titles incorporating "indigenous language" in one or another form. (Emphasis added.)

O. Okombo (1999) "Towards a strategy of changing attitudes to indigenous African languages," In L. Limage (ed.), Comparative perspectives on language and literacy: Selected papers from the work of the language and literacy commission of the 10th world congress of comparative education societies. Cape Town, 1998 (pp. 591–596). Dakar: UNESCO

Abiodun Salawu, ed. (2006) Indigenous Language Media in Africa, Lagos; Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC)

N.O. Ongechi (2009) "The role of foreign and indigenous languages in primary schools: The case of Kenya. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 39, 143–158

Abiodun Salawu and Monica B. Chibita, eds. (2016) Indigenous Language Media, Language Politics and Democracy in Africa, Palgrave Macmillan

To this list I might add my own African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing (HSRC Press / IDRC, 2010).


The sense that I, as a non-African, get from the above examples of how "indigenous language" is understood in Africa, is that to the extent the term is used, the broader sense is operant. That said, the colonial links to the word "indigenous" mean that for some number of people, the term is not ideal. (And in all of this, of course, we're referring to discourse in English.)

Should this mean that IYIL2019 should have wider activities in Africa? Perhaps with flexibility as to the terms used? Given the large number of languages in Africa that can be, and for some number apparently are, considered "indigenous languages," would a more active African involvement in IYIL2019 divert attention from the less widely spoken, often endangered indigenous languages around the world? Or add energy to it?

Africa's linguistic situation is in some ways unique: it has many actively used indigenous languages (broader sense), from some widely used to many less widely spoken, to some that are associated with smaller groups that fit IPACC's criteria for "indigenous" (narrower sense) and/or are endangered. Africa's colonial legacy, and the post-independence economic and political environment have disadvantaged all of those languages to varying degrees. How should these realities register in global discussions of indigenous languages?

A separate question, noting particular meanings given in Africa to terms like "national language" and "community language," is whether Africa's linguistic realities would also mean that "indigenous language" would naturally have a contextualized meaning there as well.

Such questions are important to ask, as there is an active proposal to expand the Year into a Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Monday, August 19, 2019

African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions

As a follow up to the post about the African Regional Meeting for IYIL2019 (30-31 July 2019), I'd like to take a quick look at what "indigenous language" means in Africa. This is a fundamental question, and one of the broader issues regarding the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) that I mentioned in an earlier post on the Year in Africa.

On the one hand, all African languages - or at least those in language families native to the continent - can be understood as "indigenous" (or the near-synonym, "autochthonous"). On the other hand, "indigenous languages" is a category associated specifically with "indigenous peoples," which in Africa is defined more narrowly by the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC).

It does not appear that the African Regional Meeting for IYIL pronounced on this topic one way or another (and perhaps they didn't see any need or advantage in so doing, or perhaps something is forthcoming in a report). And for this post, it is not my place to argue one way or another. However I will in the following share a couple of definitions, and discuss how the term is treated in the the work of the United Nations (UN) and its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and discuss some considerations relevant to understanding indigenous languages in Africa. In a follow-up post, I'll look at how the term "indigenous languages" is being used in Africa and in writing about the continent.

Definitions and other indications

In global perspective, two definitions of "indigenous language" which parallel the wider and narrower conceptions mentioned above regarding Africa, are:
Although I have not seen an authoritative definition of what counts as an indigenous language (and what doesn't), I understand that it is the second definition above that is operant in the UN and international work.

A backgrounder entitled "Indigenous Languages" by the UNPFII discusses indigenous languages in the context of indigenous peoples but doesn't offer a definition. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)'s Resolution 2000/22 establishing UNPFII almost two decades ago does not mention languages or linguistic issues.

The UN General Assembly resolution 71/178 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016), in which the IYIL2019 was declared, similarly does not give a specific definition for indigenous languages. The mentions of languages in this resolution - eight in total - are as follows (italics from original; bold added):
  • "Deeply concerned at the vast number of endangered languages, in particular indigenous languages, and stressing that, despite the continuing efforts, there is an urgent need to preserve, promote and revitalize endangered languages,"
  • "Recognizing the importance to indigenous peoples of revitalizing, using, developing and transmitting to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literature,"
  • "Bearing in mind also the importance of the empowerment and capacity-building of indigenous women and youth, including their full and effective participation in decision-making processes in matters that affect them directly, including policies, programmes and resources, where relevant, that target the well-being of indigenous women and youth, in particular in the areas of health, education, employment and the transmission of traditional knowledge, languages and practices, and the importance of taking measures to promote awareness and understanding of their rights,"
  • "13. Proclaims the year beginning on 1 January 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels, ..."
The impression I get is a clear association in this resolution of indigenous languages with indigenous peoples. There is also a wider concern with endangered languages, a category that covers many tongues among languages of indigenous peoples, as well as many others. In addition, the issues raised in the "Bearing in mind" clause concerning women and youth are similar to those raised in many development scenarios, beyond peoples strictly defined as indigenous. So maybe the definition is somewhat flexible?

None of this is to question the value and need for focus on the situation of indigenous peoples including their languages. This inquiry is instead intended to understand if there is room for a wider conception of indigenous languages in Africa - whose many languages, even more widely spoken ones, are under pressure - within the framework of IYIL2019.

Indigenous peoples in Africa

The IPACC also does not define indigenous language as such. Its definition of indigenous peoples in Africa (alluded to above) relies on a "cluster of characteristics":
  • "political and economic marginalisation rooted in colonialism;
  • "de facto discrimination based often on the dominance of agricultural peoples in the State system (e.g. lack of access to education and health care by hunters and herders);
  • "the particularities of culture, identity, economy and territoriality that link hunting and herding peoples to their home environments in deserts and forests (e.g. nomadism, diet, knowledge systems);
  • "some indigenous peoples, such as the San and Pygmy peoples are physically distinct, which makes them subject to specific forms of discrimination."
Applied to the narrower definition of indigenous languages in Africa, this would represent a significantly smaller subset of the continent's native languages.

One interesting case is that of the Mbororo Fulani, a (semi-)nomadic people in the eastern Sahel and northern central Africa. They are considered an indigenous people (Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a prominent indigenous activist from Chad, is Mbororo). Their language, however, is a variety of Fula (Fulfulde, Pulaar, Pular) spoken by various groups of Fulaphones across many countries of West Africa. So in the narrower sense of the term, is Fula an indigenous language, even though it clearly is widespread and not endangered?

African languages that aren't indigenous?

Another issue is are there African languages that would not be considered "indigenous languages," even under a broad definition of the latter? That might include languages like Malagasy, Arabic, and Afrikaans, which are languages of communities established in Africa centuries ago. So too might pidgins and creoles, which grew up in Africa, but with foreign as well as local elements.

This too is exploratory, since there is also no clear definition of what is not an indigenous language in Africa (apart the obvious case of the Europhone languages used officially in most of its countries).

A new definition of "indigenous language"?

Before moving on, I'd like to suggest an alternative way of framing "indigenous language" that flips part of one of the definitions shared above (changed part in italics):
  • "a language that originated in a specified place and was not taken elsewhere from that place"
This is not without its own problems - for example how to accommodate Yoruba-speaking descendants of slaves in Brazil, Fula speaking descendants of slaves in West Africa, and smaller communities in the modern diaspora who continue to use their languages. However, the advantage here is emphasizing the locality of many languages, which we might call indigenous, and which in any case have not been spread through the projection of power.

Africa's linguistic terrain is in some ways a difficult fit for the narrower definition of indigenous languages, but the broader one also seems to raise questions.

In the next post, I'll share some ways the term "indigenous language" is currently used in and about Africa.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

African Regional Meeting for IYIL2019

The International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 (IYIL2019) has involved various regional meetings. The African Regional Meeting for IYIL2019 is being held in Addis Ababa on 30-31 July, midway through the year.

A Concept Note for the meeting details the purpose, agenda, structures, and participants. I will copy below the statement from the conference webpage (which appears to be almost identical to a section in the Concept Note, from which the title is borrowed). This is in the typical formal language of UN meetings, but useful to have available for possible future reference and discussions.

Purpose, Objectives and Outcomes of the IYIL2019 Regional Meeting

With a view to empowering Indigenous language speakers and users, UNESCO and the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), as African Union’s specialized institution, mandated to develop and promote African languages in partnership with the languages inherited from Africa’s colonial past in the perspective of linguistic diversity and convivial multilingualism, the representatives of Member States and Indigenous members of the Steering Committee for the organization of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and Member States of the African Union, regional and international institutional partners, as well as supported by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Information for All Programme (IFAP), are organizing the IYIL2019 African Regional Meeting on Indigenous languages on 30 and 31 July 2019 at the Headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The African Regional Meeting (IYIL2019 Regional Meeting) will contribute to the implementation of the Action Plan for Organizing the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (Annex V), in particular to the established tentative road map towards achieving strategic objectives and expected impacts through the elaboration of a Global Strategic Outcomes Document.

The objectives of the African Regional Meeting (IYI2019 Regional Meeting) in Addis Ababa are to:
  • Bring together a diverse range of stakeholders, including representatives of ACALAN’s working structures in the national governments of member states of the African Union, Indigenous organizations, scholars and experts in the field of Indigenous languages, and others for a constructive dialogue on Indigenous languages and related issues in the African regions;
  • Promote the human rights and fundamental freedoms, with special focus on support, access and promotion of Indigenous languages and better integration into the policy and strategic frameworks, research agendas and development of concrete tools and services;
  • Identify existing challenges, practical solutions and good practices among different stakeholders working in language transmission, documentation, safeguarding, policy development, education, research, and promotion and private sector; and,
  • Raise awareness on the importance of Indigenous languages, linguistic diversity and multilingualism for sustainable development and provide guidance to the stakeholders in the implementation of international, regional and national commitments related to language development.
The expected Outcomes of the African IYI2019 Regional Meeting in Addis Ababa are to:
  • Produce a Regional Outcomes Document elaborated jointly by all stakeholders, including concrete recommendations and identified actions on support for, access to and promotion of Indigenous languages and empowerment of Indigenous languages speakers and learners in Africa;
  • Provide a Template for other Regional Meetings in the context of IYIL 2019; and,
  • Provide an opportunity to forge new partnerships and networks among various stakeholders to further the exchange of best practices, information sharing and collaboration.

The IYIL2019 Regional Meeting will include discussions on the following five key areas identified and presented in the Action Plan (Ref.: E/C.19/2018/8). These include:
  • Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation, including a role of non-governmental organizations;
  • Creation of favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of best practices with regards to Indigenous languages, including data collection, research and application of technological solutions;
  • Integration of Indigenous languages into standard setting, including intersectoral approaches across different domains such as education, public administration, innovation and research with a special focus on language technology;
  • Empowerment through capacity building, including young Indigenous girls and women, migrant population and diaspora; and,
  • Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge including data collection, research and innovation.

Friday, July 05, 2019

A life lesson in Fulfulde & the internal voices of a multilingual

After another hiatus in posting here, will begin again. More on all that below, but I wanted first to take the opportunity to share a couple of short items relating to my experience with some African languages.

"God knows his friends..."

I still remember a particular session of Fulfulde instruction in Moribabougou, Mali, back in 1983. As in all Peace Corps language classes - whatever the country, it seems - we were seated in a small hut, big enough for maybe 4-5 people plus a blackboard. On the particular day I'm remembering, someone passed behind the hut - nothing extraordinary in that given the layout of the training facilities beween the village and the school. Our instructor, Mady Kamanta, asked "Giɗo Alla?" Literally, "Friend of God?" which is actually a kind of "Who goes there?" The unseen person answered "Ko min, __" (and his name), basically, "It's me, ___." It was a village elder.

Short greetings followed and after the elder had gone, Mady said that the proper way to answer "Giɗo Alla?" was actually something like "Alla anndi giɗo mun. Min ko ___." Basically, God knows who's his friend. I'm ___." (I think it could also have been "Alla anndi yiɗɓe mun..." - "God knows his friends...")

A simple turn of phrase but a whole culture behind it. In pulaaku or pulaagu (basically Fula culture*), to the extent I can claim to understand it, there is a certain amount of humility and avoidance of presumption. (But as in any culture, I find there's also duality in which one sometimes encounters the apparent opposite.)

By the response you not only know the identity of the person, but also get a measure of them. In Moribabougou that day, the elder was a Bambara, and however wise he may gave been, or steeped in the context of Manding language and culture he was, could not be expected to have mastered all the nuances of a second or third language. So without knowing anything more about him, you'd learn something just from his response. From my later (and admittedly still limited) experience with varieties of Fula, I recall there were other small ways in which native speakers of the language (especially in central Mali) would test your knowledge in it.

As a turn of phrase, the "proper" form of response to "Giɗo Alla?" is is a great example of answering a question while deftly stepping aside from the premise of the question (whether implicit as in this case, or explicit, as perhaps in the case of some forms of argument). Something potentially useful in many contexts and cultures.

So for some reason I recalled this recently - which does not mean I had forgotten it in the meantime - and thought I'd share it here.

The words that come to mind (multilingual version)

A recent article on multilingualism and perception (published in June 2019 in On Biology then in slightly revised version in Psychology Today) had me thinking of the internal verbal generation in response to stimuli. That is, the words that come to mind in diverse situations, when one speaks more than one language. In my case those are sometimes words or phrases in Fula or Bambara (which are very different from each other).

Here I don't mean the kind of code-switching you do when speaking, and a word in a different language just says it better (or maybe you didn't know the term in the language of the conversation). I'm referring to the internal voice when you think of something or react to a situation. Occasionally the words I think of in certain situations are not in my first, or even second (French), language.

I'm assuming this must be common among multilinguals, but am not aware of any research on it. The closest I've seen as a non-specialist in linguistics relates to the perception of sounds, and how one interprets those as meaningful utterances, as mentioned for example in the article linked above.

Multilingualism is of course more common than monolingualism, but since linguistics and psychology arose in monolingual (sub)cultures, multilingual experience is described somewhat incompletely, and treated as if it were somehow unusual.

One would hope that as African research and scholarship in these areas becomes more prominent, multilingualism will be treated more as the norm, and monolingualism as the exception.

15 years of Beyond Niamey

Since I began this blog as an experiment in January 2004, there have been periods where I've written more often, and periods where I've posted nothing. A year ago - last summer here in the northern hemisphere - I anticipated a more substantial "reboot" than actually happened (the linked post - which opens in a new tab - is still a good statement of my current thinking on this blog, aside from the 2018-specific section, and blogging in general, which I've come to appreciate more with time).

One additional factor, which has always been in the background, but I've been thinking about more lately, is the question of what are the appropriate angles for a non-African to write about African languages and the "information society." This question is, frankly, the source of some doubt the deeper I get into it.

African languages are part of my life, for reasons perhaps apparent from the above, but which I'll discuss further in a subsequent post. However none of them are my language in the senses of mother tongue or cultural heritage. So as much as I may have my opinions, I also try to maintain a sense of propriety and humility. As I see it now, that allows focus on asking questions, making comparisons, and sharing information, ideas, and observations.

Readers are invited to follow critically as this blog evolves.

* Pulaaku is a somewhat complicated topic, often presented as the "Fula way" and comprised of several key attributes or behaviors. One summary posted on the web offers a list (although they had trouble with the hooked letters - "neaaaku," "aum," and "enaam" should be "neɗɗaaku," "ɗum," and "enɗam"). In an academic article entitled "L'image des Fulbe : Analyse critique de la constgruction du concept de pulaaku," Anneke Breedveld and Mirjam De Bruijn argue that the meanings of pulaaku vary by region, and perhaps our understanding of a single concept (and Fula people) is derived from foreign scholarship. In this, as much as in variation of the language, I tend to think that there are core concepts that are drawn from and interpreted variously, and that these interpretations don't represent divergence so much as dynamics. In the realms of ideas and identity, these dynamics could also mean convergence.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

IMLD 2019 & IYIL 2019 in Africa

On this International Mother Language Day 2019 (IMLD 2019), which has as its theme "Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation," a question: What are "indigenous languages" in Africa?

The question arises also since we are over a month into the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL 2019), an observation declared by the United Nations General Assembly in its 2016 resolution on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The purpose of the IYIL 2019 as stated in that resolution (under #13) is:

"to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels"

I won't propose a definitive answer as to what counts as "indigenous language" as my understanding is that the themes of IMLD and IYIL are inclusive, but it seems to be an important issue to think about in the interests of encouraging wide participation in Africa.

With that in mind, it is worth noting that the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) calls for "Celebration of South African languages" in the context of IYIL 2019. Also of interest is that the January-February issue of the UNESCO Courier, themed "Indigenous Languages and Knowledge (IYIL 2019)," has an article on the Mbororo people of Chad, whose mother tongue is a variety of Fula (Fulfulde/Pulaar) - a language that originated in a region far to the west.

Some of the broader issues concerning indigenous languages of Africa I hope to come back to in a following article, but in the meantime wishing all a happy IMLD 2019!

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Writing Bambara wrong & a petition to VOA

Why does the Voice of America (VOA) Bambara service's web content use a frenchized transcription of Bambara while Radio France International (RFI) uses the Bambara orthography?

Screenshot from page on VOA Bambara website. In Bambara orthography:
Jamana tigi: Ibrahima Bubakar Keyita ye Sankura foli kɛ ka ɲɛsin jamana
denw ma. (Presidential New Year's address to the people of the country)
This question comes to mind in light of a petition being circulated by the Cercle Linguistique Bamakois asking that VOA follow the Bambara orthography on its web presence. (An English version of the petition is included at the end of this post.)

According to Sam Samake, a language specialist in Bamako, VOA's rationale for its current approach is to reach a large number of listeners who do not read or write Bambara in the official orthography,1 but who have been schooled in the French language system. In the view of Dr. Coleman Donaldson, a researcher on Manding languages (which include Bambara), this is part of a pattern of disregard for the spelling and orthographic conventions adopted by the Malian government and used now in many in primary schools.2 (This system happens also to harmonize with orthographies of neighboring countries due to the process that included the Bamako 1966 and Niamey 1978 conferences.)

Use or non-use of African language orthographies - and implications of respect or disrespect that accompany that choice - is not at all a new discussion. Coleman has a more recent examination of the broader problem as it appears in Mali, in a book chapter:3
"In a context where there is no shortage of people trained in official Bamanan orthography, the fact that the multinational telecommunications firm Orange fails to respect the official conventions is not simply a case of shoddy work; it is in fact part of the message."
Screenshot from RFI Mandenkan homepage. (Days & times of broadcasts).
In fact, as Sam pointed out, Malian government personnel, including for example everyone in the national broadcasting service, ORTM, have been trained in this orthography.1 So it does not appear at all accidental that major international entities like VOA and Orange opt to write Bambara as they please.

In this context, it is interesting to note RFI's decision on "Mandenkan" web content. Mandenkan, or Manding, is a group of largely interintelligible languages including Bambara (or Bamanankan) in the Mande family. RFI uses what looks like Bambara in the proper Malian orthography. That said, the amount of text in the language is limited to a static page on its main site (from which the image above was drawn), and some text in older posts on its Facebook page.

L2 literacy & L1 illiteracy?

VOA's decision to use a frenchized (or Frenchified) transcription of Bambara - which it should be noted has no standard form, pretty much by definition - is apparently premised on the notion that many people in their audience don't read the standard Bambara orthography. There may be something to this, to the extent that in Mali, formal education is mainly or exclusively in French, and people who read French can sound out text with spellings reflecting French phonetics.

However this reasoning (or rationale) has at least two problems. First, it is not clear how much of the audience cannot read Bambara written in the official orthography. Have there been any surveys? And secondly, for a native speaker of the language, the official orthography would not seem that hard to work through.

On the latter point, a word about multilingual literacy, or its absence, in Africa. The fact that many people in Africa have been taught to read in a Europhone language (French, in the case of Mali), which for the vast majority is a second language ("L2"), but never formally taught in their first language ("L1") or local lingua franca (like Bambara in Mali), leads to situations where many people are not comfortable reading in their familiar African languages. I've been among those calling attention to the problem in using one measure of literacy in such multilingual contexts.4

However, that's not the same as saying an L2 (and non-L1) literate person should access their L1 only with the phonetcs of the L2. The bridge from L2-only literacy to L1 literacy is not as long as that from illiteracy to basic literacy of any kind. And the Latin-based orthography of Bambara (what we are talking about here) is not that difficult to master. After all, it doesn't seem to have put a crimp in RFI Mandenkan's effectiveness.

Tech issues: A problem? And a potential

One needs to ask if maybe a hidden issue with VOA and the Bambara orthography isn't the issue with keyboards and input. Is it possible that a simple input solution enabling the VOA Bambara service staff to type the special characters used in Bambara could change this discussion?

Also, could VOA use the perceived shortcomings in audience mastery of the Bambara orthography to engage their audience with some kind of online learning app? This would certainly generate a more favorable buzz than what the current situation is doing.

Petition to VOA

The only version of the petition I am aware of is the one in French on the site. A Bambara version would be logical - as a "medium is the message" statement if nothing else - but I have not seen any. Appended below for information of people who do not read French, but do read English, is a quick translation5 of the text of the petition into the latter:
Voice of America journalists must respect the Bambara orthography
Considering that Mali, since its accession to independence and through all the successive regimes, has emphasized the importance of the languages and cultures of the country;

Considering that the question of languages spoken in Mali is included in the country's constitution;

Considering that for decades there have been departments dedicated to the question of the languages of Mali;

Considering the remarkable work done by Malian and foreign linguists on the languages spoken in Mali from 1960 to the present day;

Considering the intellectual and financial effort made by Mali and its international partners (in particular the African Academy of Languages) in the codification and use of Mali's languages in schools and in the media;

Considering the learning and the respect of these standards in writing as an obligation in order to perpetuate the work of codification carried out;

Considering that the state of Mali through the dedicated departments guarantees these standards;

Considering that the journalists of the Mandenkan team of RFI (Radio France Internationale) have been trained and correctly use the spelling rules of Bambara;

Considering that the Bambara team of the Voice of America (VOA) does not respect any Bambara spelling rules;

We hereby call on the State of Mali (through the Ministry of National Education / Malian Academy of Languages) and the African Academy of Languages to remind the Voice of America of strict respect for the spelling rules of Bambara on the VOA Bambara page.

Recommend for this purpose:

The training of Bambaraphone journalists of VOA in the spelling rules of Bambara.

What about Hausa?

This discussion would not be complete without mention of the continued use of ASCIIfied Hausa by the international radio operations, including VOA and RFI. And how is it that RFI gets Mandenkan (Bambara) right, but not Hausa?
1. He mentioned this in a discussion about the topic on the Facebook African Languages group page (2 Jan. 2019). Sam is a former Peace Corps/Mali language program instructor and administrator. We have known each other since the slightly famous Peace Corps pre-service training in Moribabougou, Mali in 1983.
2. See Coleman's blog post on this topic and the VOA petition, "Voice of America's Bambara Orthography and a Petition," on his interesting site about Manding languages (which include Bambara), An ka taa.
3. Coleman Donaldson. 2017. "Orthography, Standardization and Register: The Case of Manding." In P. Lane, J. Costa, & H. De Korne (Eds.), Standardizing Minority Languages: Competing Ideologies of Authority and Authenticity in the Global Periphery (pp. 175–199). New York, NY: Routledge.
4. See, for instance, "Multilingual Literacy Day, 2014" (8 Sep 2014).
5. Based on what Google Translate produced, which was much more useful than Systranet's output.