Friday, December 31, 2021

On the eve of IDIL, some reflection

Just a quick signal at the end of 2021 to say that I hope to resume posting here intermittently in 2022, which also will be the first year of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL).

The place of African languages among indigenous or autochthonous languages - whether all of the first languages of the continent are included, or only some, and by what criteria - seems to me to still be an open question. I've explored that question in 4 posts on this blog, in case any of them might be of interest:

Although my schedule permits much less space than I would like for research and writing, and I am balancing pursuit of other interests as well, I remain keenly interested in African languages and their use in education, development programming, and advanced technologies. The next decade may be critical for the future of African languages, as language technology quickly advances with or without them, and the dynamics of inter-generational transmission of them change or even break down.

At the same time, I have been reflecting on what are and aren't appropriate roles for non-Africans in advocacy for, and pushing our ideas about, African languages. It is not as if these issues have never occurred to me, but observing the field and the general tendency of outsiders, especially of relatively privileged background, to populate all sides of any discourse on Africa, I needed to take a step back.

This is not to backhandedly call into question all people from one culture who propose to do work relating to another culture - in fact, all cultures, and the world in general, needs such diverse perspectives. However, between my part of the world and Africa, there are asymmetries of influence. So I am taking a moment to reflect on those, and how what I think I've been doing benefits from them, and what might be the inadvertent messages and unintended effects of that work.

Other than that, all is fine, Yerkoy sabu.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year 2022!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

IMLD 2021: What multilingualism means for inclusion

This year's International Mother Language Day (IMLD, 21 February 2021) has as its theme, "Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society." Of the key terms in this expression, most need little if any explanation. But the meaning of one of them - inclusion - merits attention.

When we speak of - or speak - mother tongues and second (or additional) languages, as individuals, communities, and countries, that is "multilingualism." "Education" is often thought of as connected with schooling, but it also includes other modes of learning and sharing knowledge. These two concepts - multilingualism and education - along with specific attention to mother tongues, have been recurrent themes in IMLD observances over the years. And they are often discussed together - for example as "mother tongue based, multilingual education" (MTB/MLE).

"Society" seems impossibly broad, taking in pretty much everything we do. That's certainly appropriate in this context, as language and choice of languages are fundamental to our communication, interaction, and collective memory (not ignoring the tandem role of images and non-verbal.forms of communication). However I read a new and encouraging dimension to the mention of society in this year's IMLD theme: a link with sustainable development.

In an IMLD 2021 concept paper by the UNESCO Education Sector and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, multilingualism is linked to the "Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind" (which, by the way, actually has an acronym: LNOB). This IMLD concept paper also mentions the centrality of multilingualism for indigenous peoples' development - from which we can assume that where many languages are spoken, engaging constructively with that reality is fundamental for everyone's development.

Before coming to what I see as the key term in this year's IMLD theme - inclusion - note should be made of the action word at its beginning: "fostering." I hear this as calling out the importance of policies and planning, and the effective implementation of these. The issues of multilingualism need active attention from not only individuals, but also governments and organizations, without which we have words and no action (and in the end, no words either).

Whose inclusion?

"Inclusion" turns out to be a tricky concept. Although I accept that the intent of its use in the IMLD 2021 theme is positive - the notion that languages can facilitate education and full participation in society - this term can also carry some less positive meanings. Chief among these is the implication that there is an outside and an inside, and those inside define the terms for bringing the outsiders in. There's a potential inequality there that led one writer from a community development perspective to propose abandoning the word inclusion altogether.

In the context of schools, inclusion is often (at least in the West) used in the context of students with special educational needs (and within that setting, one writer identified eleven definitions!). This does not seem to be an appropriate analogue for promoting multiple languages in education.

In the context of language and languages in Africa, the question of inclusion seems to me to become more complex. Upon independence, most African states opted to keep the colonial languages as official, rather than promoting use of one or more among their indigenous languages. This in effect put various ethno-linguistic groups within their borders at the same disadvantage (no one "inside group" controlling power). However, it also gave those who were fluent in the official languages an advantage, which is maintained through a dynamic described by Prof. Carol Myers-Scotton as "elite closure" (in other words, an there's an inside group after all).

At the same time, as Prof. Ayo Bamgbose once observed, many states operated on the paradigm that "one language always unites and many languages always divide." So in effect inclusion or exclusion in education and society have been defined to a large degree (in linguistic terms) on the basis of use of the one official language.

It is possible to find "inclusion" on more shallow level, in a group or structure that does not fully value what one brings to it, or that requires higher sacrifice from some than of others. That's as true regarding mother languages as it is regarding other aspects of culture.

While acknowledging the utility of a common language (lingua franca), the fostering of multilingualism seems to me to have the potential to shift the basis for inclusion from something centrally controlled or defined by a limited group, to a dynamic with more entry points.