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.


Sam Samaké said...

Thanks Don for this good plea.

Michael Leventhal said...

On the strength of the comment in this blog that ORTM trains its presenters in Bambara orthography, I went to ORTM in December 2020 hoping to find written transcripts of news broadcasts. Currently, there are no staff at ORTM that know how to read and write Bambara. News broadcasts are translated on the fly from French text. According to an analysis of a very small sample, rather approximately.

On the other hand, 3 years of primary education in written Bambara is increasingly a norm in Mali - not universal but considerable progress has been made.

An on the ground observation is that bambara-speaking Malians literate in French can learn to read standard Bambara orthography in a few minutes. And logically, it serves no one to present written Bambara to Malians that don't know how to read. The position of VOA makes no sense at all.

Don said...

Thank you Sam and Michael for your comments.

Michael, I appreciate your checking at ORTM and sharing that information and other observations. Seems some further research is needed on (1) patterns of use of written national languages of Mali, and (2) how broadcast organizations in Africa generally produce content in African languages.

Coleman Donaldson had an observation concerning my interpretation of "gnechi" as "ɲɛci" in the caption to the photo at the head of the post. He suggests via Twitter that it should instead be "ɲɛsin." I'll make this change accordingly.