Sunday, June 19, 2016

TED talks in African languages?

Of all the TED and TEDx talks - a genre of knowledge sharing that began in the 1980s but went "viral" with the possibilities offered by YouTube - have any been given in any African language? The question is not so easy to answer as I'll get to below, but the process of trying to answer it gives rise to other questions such as: Could a TED talk or a TEDx event be given in one or several African languages?

Image source:

TED - "Ideas Worth Spreading"

TED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design, "is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization, Sapling Foundation." The idea of the conferences is sharing of ideas "usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less)."

The conferences have been held mainly in North America and Europe, with a handful in Asia and Latin America. One, in 2007, was held in Arusha, Tanzania with the theme, "Africa: The Next Chapter." Many, but not all, of the talks in these events become videos featured online.

The talks, which total some "2200+" according to the website, are apparently all given in English. (The program for the 2007 conference in Arusha is not available online to check.) Quite a number of talks are subtitled in other languages, as I'll discuss further on.

TEDx - "x = independently organized event"

Image adapted from:
TEDx events, of which there are several types, are licensed by TED but organized separately. The number of TEDx events around the world is not stated anywhere I looked, but one list includes 2967 events (number from the line count in my text editor), and a nice interactive map display includes some past events that are not on that list (I randomly checked some in Africa).

The total number of talks at these independent conferences must therefore be staggering. The drop-down list in the sidebar of the TEDx languages page lists 43 languages, of which the only African one is Arabic (to that extent, my first question in the opening paragraph above would be answered in the affirmative). However, given the large number of TEDxs that have been held in many diverse locations around the world, is it possible that there have been presentations in other languages not on that list?

From a rough count of TEDx events in Africa in 2015 on the map mentioned above, there were ~80 events, with well over half in diverse locations in sub-Saharan Africa. Were presentations in places like for example Kano, Nigeria, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia all English-only?

Subtitling of TED talks

According to the translation page on the TED site - there has been subtitling of talks in over 100 languages (the actual count on the page is 110, thanks again to copy-paste & line-count, but that number includes some varieties of the same languages, as well as English originals). The African languages among these, with their count of how many talks, include: Afrikaans (19); Amharic (13); Arabic (2091); Arabic, Algerian (9); Hausa (1); Igbo (1); Somali (20); and Swahili (33).

The one talk (in English) with Hausa subtitles - embedded below - was given in 2003 and with the subtitles evidently added in 2008. Worth noting that the Boko orthography is used, as you can see with the hooked consonants.

The one talk with Igbo subtitles does not appear to follow the standard orthography - the lack of subdot vowels is one giveaway, but also tone marks are absent. And there are untranslated English terms - the first instance I recall seeing of code-mixing in subtitles. The other language subtitles look polished, though I'm even less in the position to evaluate them.

TEDx talks, as noted above, come in various languages, and apparently some of them have same-language subtitling, although that term is not used (for example several dozen in French).

The translation/subtitling effort itself looks like a successful involvement of volunteer contributions for at least a number of languages.

TED or TEDx in African languages?

There are two ways to achieve more linguistic diversity relevant to Africa in TED talks. The first would be through expanding the translation program mentioned above.This might require some new approaches as the volunteer model may not work as well as in Northern countries. The benefit would be expanding access, particularly with some more widely spoken African languages.

The second would be to organize (more?) TEDx events that either allow presentations in African languages, or that explicitly invite presentations in one or more African language(s). This would seem to be an interesting way to bring in diverse presenters, and to develop recorded content that could be shared locally, nationally, or regionally (depending on the language demographics). Even for those without internet or mobile access to such TEDx recordings, it might be possible in some contexts to distribute video for TV and audio-only for national and community radio. And such content could of course be translated into other languages for wider dissemination.

Ideas for sharing, after all, can come in many languages.

Friday, June 17, 2016


This is the fourth in a string of posts on conferences and workshops relevant to, or specifically addressing, African languages. Only one event of all of those mentioned, however, is in Africa. More on that at the end of the post, but first the three upcoming conferences for which there are active CFPs (calls for papers/participation). The subject of the first, LESEWA, is on similarities between a number of West African and East Asian languages - a theme that has long interested me as a learner of Bambara and Chinese (Mandarin). The latter two deal with a broad set of languages of generally disadvantaged status and fewer speakers, among which many African languages can be counted. The first two events are the latest of long-running conference series; the third is brand new.


The International Conference on Languages of Far East, Southeast Asia and West Africa (LESEWA) will be held in Moscow, Russia on 16-17 November 2016. This is the latest in a series of biennial conferences that began in 1990 (I am told that the idea began with Prof. Vadim Kasevich and colleagues). The CFP deadline is 1 July 2016.

LESEWA "will focus on the remarkable far-reaching parallelism in syntactic and semantic structures of the languages of the Far East, Southeast Asia and West Africa, which can be explained neither by genealogical affinity, nor by aerial factors. Both individual language investigations and typological studies are encouraged. General phonetic and general linguistics themes are especially welcome."


FEL XX Hyderabad (the 20th conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages) will be held at the University of Hyderabad in India on 2-5 December 2016. Its theme is "Language colonization and endangerment: Long-term effects, echoes and reactions." The CFP deadline has been moved back to 1 July 2016 (the conference date was also changed).

FEL XX "aims to examine language endangerment during the colonial era, and the impact of colonization on the subsequent efforts of the independent nations and communities to revitalize their language heritage. The conference will look at continuity and change in approaches to language use." The concept of "colonialism" is broad, including not only expansion of European rule, but also historically earlier periods of domination by one people over others.


The First International Conference on Revitalization of Indigenous and Minoritized Languages will be held in Barcelona, Spain, on 19-21 April 2017. It is co-sponsored by the Universitat de Barcelona, Universitat de Vic-Universitat Central de Catalunya, and Indiana University-Bloomington. The deadline for proposals is 30 July 2016.

"The mission of the conference is to bring together instructors, practitioners, activists, Indigenous leaders, scholars and learners who speak and study these [indigenous and minoritized] languages. This international conference includes research, pedagogy and practice about the diverse languages and cultures of Indigenous and minoritized populations worldwide."

Language conferences and Africa

As noted above, of the nine events spotlighted in this and the previous three posts, all but one are outside of Africa (that one is in South Africa). To be fair, not all of them deal specifically with African languages. But in general one may fairly ask how many conferences on languages and linguistics - be they Africa focused or global in scope - take place in Africa, one of the most multilingual continents. No clear answer to offer here, but if one were to do a count, it might help to go about the task with attention to types of conferences - academic vs. policy vs. workshop-type - and to the subjects - general or focused on Africa. I have the impression that quite a number of events - conferences, expert meetings, etc. - dealing with policy and practical aspects of African language use have been held in various parts of Africa, as one would expect. On the other hand, academic conferences, whatever the topic - even African languages and linguistics - are more frequent in the Northern countries due to the number of institutions and scholars, and resources available to them for convening such events. General conferences on topics like ICT4D or endangered languages might be located anywhere, and conference series with significant African content and potential participation do seem to try to alternate regional locations to include some in Africa.

All of which is to say that my unscientific sampling of nine events may not tell us much about the choices of location of conferences on or relating to African languages. Nevertheless, it seemed worth addressing the topic given the apparent discrepancy in geographic representation.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Upcoming events: Bantu 6, Borderland Linguistics, LSSA/SAALA/SAALT, and TripleA 3

Having spotlighted ICTD 2016 last week and the upcoming TALAf 2016 workshop, here are three four more conferences taking place over the next few weeks whose subjects are directly or indirectly relevant to African languages.

Bantu 6

The 6th International Conference on Bantu Languages, 20-22 June 2016, "brings together specialists in all aspects of the study of Bantu languages." It is being organized by the University of Helsinki in Finland with several partners and sponsors. The provisional program and abstracts are available on the conference site.

The series of linguistic conferences of which this event is a part considers the branch of the Niger-Congo language family known as Bantu. Bantu languages are spoken in large parts of Southern and Central Africa, as well as in East Africa.

The series, which has involved many prominent international scholars in African languages and linguistics, goes back several years with conferences in various locations in Europe (this incomplete list gleaned from several sources):
  • (First)
  • Bantu Languages: Analysis, Description and Theory, 4-7 October 2007, University of Götenborg, Sweden
  • Bantu 3, 25-27 March 2009, Tervuren, Belgium
  • "B4ntu," 7-9 April 2011, Berlin, Germany (Bantu 4 was originally scheduled for 22-26 March 2010 at Lancaster University, UK, but had to be postponed)
  • Bantu 5, 12-15 June 2013, INALCO, Paris, France

Borderland Linguistics Conference

The Borderland Linguistics Conference will be held on 27-28 June 2016 at the University of Bristol, UK. This is not specifically related to Africa, however, the program includes three presentations on languages in Africa. Also, given the attention in this blog to "cross-border languages" in Africa, it seems especially appropriate to mention this event.

The conference theme is described this way:
The notion of border is highly complex and problematic, whether it be an officially demarcated border between two states, or a less rigorously defined meeting space of somehow differentiated social or ethnic groups. Leading theorists have proposed that a broad-reaching 'theory' of borders may in fact be infelicitous, due to the contextual specificities of each different border area that may constitute an area of study. Nevertheless, borders remain fruitful sites for scholarly inquiry, and this conference invites contributions from linguistics researchers of all levels whose work focuses on borderlands.


The LSSA / SAALA / SAALT Joint Annual Conference for 2016 will be held at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa on 4-7 July 2016.  The three organizations running the conference are: Linguistics Society of Southern Africa; Southern African Applied Linguistics Association; and South African Association for Language Teaching.

The conference theme - "Language and Linguistics in the Global South: Posing the Challenge" - is framed "within the current context of demands for radical changes to academic content and access at our universities" and encouraged contributors to address "issues of decoloniality and southern theory in linguistic research and teaching." The topics of the conference include: applied linguistics; language practice; language teaching; linguistics; sign language; sociolinguistics; multilingualism; discourse analysis; and linguistic landscapes.

TripleA 3

The Semantics of African, Asian and Austronesian Languages (TripleA 3), 6-8 July 2016, Tübingen, Germany, is the third in a "workshop series aims at providing a forum for semanticists doing fieldwork on understudied languages. Its focus is on languages from Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania."

Semantics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the study of meaning. The TripleA 3 program includes a number of presentations on African languages.


The attentive reader will notice that three of thee four events or series take place in Europe. This is partly a function of chance in the time period chosen, although it is true that Northern institutions have the resources to sponsor such meetings.

Normally it is more useful to post the calls for participation/papers (CFPs), but these are published regularly on relevant sites including Linguist List. This blog is not intended as a reliable source for such news, but will hopefully continue to carry information about interesting meetings and events relating to African languages and the information society. (That said, an upcoming post will feature two CFPs that may be of interest.)

(The section on the Borderland Linguistics Conference was updated on 14 June 2016 with information provided by its organizer, Dr. James Hawkey. Information on the 2016 LSSA / SAALA / SAALT Joint Annual Conference was added on 17 June 2016.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Des infos sur l'atelier TALAf 2016

Voici quelques informations sur l'atelier TALAf (Traitement automatique des langues africaines) qui aura lieu le 4 juillet 2016 lors de la conférence JEP-TALN-RECITAL à Paris, France. (For English, see TALAf workshop.)

Il y a dix articles acceptés pour présentation à l'atelier : 8 en français, 2 en anglais. En tout, huit langues africaines figurent dans les sujets de ces articles : amazighe, bambara, comorien, igbo, maninka, peul, swahili, et wolof. Le programme suit :

09h30-10h00  Valentin Vydrin, Andrij Rovenchak & Kirill Maslinsky
Maninka Reference Corpus: A Presentation.
10h00-10h30  Ikechukwu Onyenwe, Mark Hepple & Uchechukwu Chinedu
Improving Accuracy of Igbo Corpus Annotation Using Morphological Reconstruction and Transformation-Based Learning.
10h30-11h00Pause café
11h00-11h30Moneim Abdourahamane, Christian Boitet, Valérie Bellynck, Lingxiao Wang & Hervé Blanchon
Construction d’un corpus parallèle français-comorien en utilisant de la TA français-swahili.
11h30-12h00David Blachon, Elodie Gauthier, Laurent Besacier, Guy-Noël Kouarata, Martine Adda-Decker & Annie Rialland
Collecte de parole pour l'étude des langues peu dotées ou en danger avec l'application mobile Lig-Aikuma.
12h00-14h00Pause repas
14h00-14h30Michael Melese Woldeyohannis, Laurent Besacier & Meshesha Million
Amharic Speech Recognition for Speech Translation.
14h30-15h00El Hadji Malick Fall, El Hadji Mamadou Nguer, Sokhna Bao Diop, Mouhamadou Khoulé, Mathieu Mangeot & Mame Thierno Cissé
Digraphie des langues ouest africaines : Latin2Ajami : un algorithme de translittération automatique.
15h00-15h30Fatimazahra Nejme, Siham Boulaknadel & Driss Aboutajdine
Développement de ressources pour la langue amazighe : Le Lexique Morphologique El-AmaLex.
15h30-16h00Alla Lo, Elhadji Mamadou Nguer, Abdoulaye Youssoupha Ndiaye, Cheikh Bamba Dione, Mathieu Mangeot, Mouhamadou Khoule, Sokhna Bao Diop & Mame Thierno Cisse
Correction orthographique pour la langue wolof : état de l'art et perspectives.
16h00-16h30Pause café
16h30-17h00Mouhamdou Khoule, Mathieu Mangeot, El Hadji Mamadou Nguer & Mame Thierno Cisse
iBaatukaay : un projet de base lexicale multilingue contributive sur le web à structure pivot pour les langues africaines notamment sénégalaises.
17h00-17h30Chérif Mbodj & Chantal Enguehard
Production et mise en ligne d’un dictionnaire électronique du wolof.

Les ateliers TALAf ont lieu tous les deux ans depuis 2012. Ils sont soutenus par le réseau Lexicologie, Terminologie, Traduction, une association internationale qui faisait partie de l'Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) jusqu’en 2010.

Selon le site web de TALAf, les rôles de l'atelier sont les suivants :
  • "mettre en relation les chercheurs du domaine grâce aux rencontres lors de l'atelier mais aussi avec la liste de diffusion ;
  • mutualiser les savoirs en utilisant des outils en source ouverte, des standards (ISO, Unicode), et en publiant les ressources produites sous licence ouverte (Creative Commons), afin d'éviter, entre autres, la perte d'informations lorsqu'un projet s'arrête et ne peut être repris immédiatement faute de moyens ;
  • développer un ensemble de bonnes pratiques fondées sur l'expérience des chercheurs du domaine. Il s'agit de mettre au point des méthodologies simples et économes en coût d'achat de logiciels pour l'élaboration de ressources, d'échanger sur les techniques permettant de se passer de certaines ressources inexistantes et enfin d'éviter des pertes de temps et d'énergie."

Friday, June 03, 2016

ICTD 2016, and languages and L10n

This year's edition of the annual International Conference on Information & Communication Technologies and Development - ICTD 2016 - is underway now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The conference began today and goes through Monday (June 3-6).

Having brought up at various times on this blog the topic of ICT4D and L10n* in African languages, I will take a look at the ICTD 2016 program for hints on how this topic might be treated. Then a comparison with two previous ICTD conferences.

A quick search of the program shows only one topic that contains the word "language":
"Mobile Device Keyboard Customization for Newly Constructed Orthography of A Rural West African Language" [link to paper on ACM Digital Library]
Esther H. Showalter (Johns Hopkins University)

This concerns Kaansa, a less-widely spoken language of Burkina Faso, and may be the only paper specifically addressing aspects of mobile technology localization for text input. No topic in the conference program specifically lists "localization."

That said, other presentations may address language and localization issues in various ways without signaling the fact in their titles. The following, for instance, concerns a Ghanaian  project that permits sending "bulk voice messages in local languages" to mobile phones:

"Bridging the lastmile with MERGDATA technology platform"
Worlali Senyo, Sessie Burns (Farmerline)

Other topics imply some choices about languages used which presumably would be discussed during the presentations. Two examples are:

"Women’s Use of Participatory Video Technology to Tackle Gender Inequality in Zambia’s ICT Sector"
Tony Roberts (United Nations University, Institute of Computing and Society)

"Reflecting on Video: Exploring the Efficacy of Video for Teaching Device Literacy in Rural Kenya"
Susan Wyche (Michigan State University), Charles Steinfield (Michigan State University), Tian Cai (Michigan State University),  Nightingale Simiyu (Bungoma, Kenya), Martha E. Othieno (Homa Bay, Kenya)

Then there are (or were as they happened on the morning of the first day) two sessions of the ICTD Africa Researchers Network on the theme, "Re-Thinking ICTD Field Research Narrative in the Global South." It would be interesting to know whether language as a factor in evaluation of ICT4D efforts was discussed.

The multilingual dimension of ICT applications and projects for development and education, worldwide as well as in Africa, may permeate the proceedings to a considerable degree, or not. It would be helpful if the conference report could give attention to such cross-cutting themes, although that would require some additional level of feedback from the sessions.

ICTD 2015

ICTD 2015 in Singapore included two topics mentioning "language" (both in Asia), two mentioning "mother tongue" (one in Kenya, the other in Pakistan), and one "localised SMS" (in India).

One topic apparently dealt with languages of extension in Uganda:

"'Buuza Omulimisa' (Ask the  extension  officer):  Text Messaging for  Low Literate Farming  Communities in Rural Uganda"
Daniel Ninsiima (Michigan State University)
That's just from a quick tour of the ICTD 2015 report.

ICTD 2013

The conference preceding the one in Singapore was ICTD 2013, held in Cape Town, South Africa. That included one topic mentioning "language" (Morocco). As in the conferences discussed above, there were other topics that look like they might touch on language-related issues.

I did not access earlier reports, which go back to the first conference in Berkeley, California, USA in 2006.

ICT4D & L10n

It does appear that language is considered in at least some Africa-related presentations, and a number of non-African topics, at the ICTD conferences. What the emphases are is another question - mainly content? voice vs. text? attention to interfaces and input?

I plan to continue to address the ICT4D-L10n connection in Africa, and to that end would invite any feedback from participants in the current or past ICTD events.

* ICT4D = information and communications technology for development; L10n = localization or localisation.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Multilingual extension in Africa: Framing the contexts

This post continues the discussion about multilingual extension and public education responses to emergencies where there are many languages from the previous post about the response to the West African ebola epidemic, with a look at general lessons and strategies.

Multilingual marketing & multilingual extension

There is a lot of information available about multilingual marketing aimed mainly at commercial users, and often with a focus on web content, for example on blogs and news sites (Business 2 Community, Business News Daily, ClickZ, Mention, Search Engine Journal), and corporate sites (ADAM, Ecoconsultancy, Lionbridge, MarketingProfs). Part of the pitch in these pieces is that most people base decisions like purchasing on information in their principal language, and most people do not speak English. Hence the need to localize messages, involving primarily translation but also attention to cultural norms and sensibilities. Multilingual marketing strategies allow a message to reach a linguistically diverse population - no mystery there. Most of the focus of such discussion, however, is on parts of the world with lucrative markets and good connectivity - much of the global North plus dynamic urban centers globally.

Although one can certainly tap such advice for information relevant to a range of situations, there is not any comparable font of advice that I'm aware of focused on strategies for extension, development communication, public health education, or messaging relating to crises in the multilingual global South, including Africa. These regions tend to have less disposable income and less connectivity than in the global North. And large numbers of their populations, if not majorities, speak languages that may be at once "less-resourced" in technical and literary senses, absent from school curricula or taught only in the first couple of grades, and given lower in status than that accorded the main European, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages.

The relative lack of prioritization of African language messaging by international entities involved in the ebola response can be seen in this context.

Understanding African linguistic realities

Planning for use of diverse languages in extension and public education, or even just accepting that it is worthwhile, requires understanding the "linguistic terrain," which may be defined as including information about the languages spoken (what they are and how they are related), the linguistic demography (who speaks what in what areas), and relevant sociolinguistic factors (how various languages are used, status of languages, etc.). Understanding the linguistic terrain, in turn, requires attention to specifics, and may be facilitated by models or "frameworks" which put such specifics into perspectives useful for action.

For instance, figures on the number of languages spoken in a country are readily accessed, and not infrequently these elicit in foreigners the impression of a kind of Babel, too complicated to deal with beyond maybe assuring there is local staff able to interpret as needed (else just relying on ad hoc interpretation in the field). Beyond the numbers, the names may be unfamiliar, issues of who speaks what where and when not understood, the close relationship of some sets of languages with different names unknown, and there's always someone ready to offer a rationale for not bothering with African languages.

In approaching the multiplicity of languages in multilingual African countries, the first task is getting past the numbers, to put some identity to the names, and then to frame some understanding of how they are (and could be) used, by whom, where, and when.

Hierarchies, relationships, and priorities

The simplest and easiest framework in which to approach linguistic diversity in Africa - which arguably the default understanding for many - is a hierarchy in which the "Europhone" international languages are higher, and "local languages" are lower. That could be on the basis of several factors - elite status, career and education opportunities, existence of written and digital resources, number of speakers globally - but not others - mother tongue status, cultural content, number of speakers locally/regionally.
Classes of development of a linguistic variety proposed by Kloss (1978),
as quoted in Mioni (1988). Source: Guerini (2006:33)

The diagram at the right, adapted from work by Heinz Kloss, illustrates what such a hierarchy might look like (though I'm interpreting it here for purposes different than it was proposed). In many African countries, a Europhone official languages is #1 in such a ranking (Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Swahili might also be considered here), and most other languages down the scale (per the diagram, they all would be nos. 4-6).

Such a simple hierarchy may have utility for description, but also has limitations - perhaps notably in confirming biases. It is probably not a good guide for communication strategies.

Hierarchy of  languages in de Swaan's (2001) theory. Source:
Wikimedia Commons, By Jqho1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
A hierarchical approach proposing a system of relations was Abram de Swaan's global language system theory (developed across several publications culminating in a 2001 book). He considered languages as forming a network of "constellations," each having more central and more peripheral languages. De Swaan's system adopts the core-periphery paradigm of world system theory, and includes arguments from history and a mathematical model for the communicative value of a language (Q-value). A more complete discussion of his work is beyond the scope of this post, but for our purposes, the model has been widely influential.

Source: Calvet (2006:76)
Among those referencing De Swaan, Louis-Jean Calvet (1999, 2006) explored how this approach works and may change in several regions. In one African case - Mali - it is clear that some languages do not fit simply into a hierarchical system of constellations (in a different discussion, we'd be calling many of these "cross-border languages," although the limits of constellations do not follow country boundaries).

In general the constellation approach seems most useful when analyzing the global or broad regional systems, and may not be helpful in communication strategies that require dissemination of messages in what are framed as peripheral languages.

Rough long-tail distro of 1st+2nd languages in Mali
A different approach that I have discussed previously (in general and in the case of Mali) uses the observation that numbers of speakers of languages as a rule follow a long-tail distribution. This is true at any scale, but the languages at the head of the distribution at more local levels may be different than those at a regional or country levels. This is not necessarily better than the constellation approach, but it does offer a different understanding of data that suggests different priorities. Arguably when a crisis such as ebola is most critical in certain localities, awareness of the language distributions on those local levels might be important for effective messaging there.

Types of African language repertoires in Mioni (1988).
Source: Guerini (2006:30-32) (combined 3 figures)
Since linguistic demographics and language policies differ by country it is also important to look at the organization of languages at that level. Alberto Mioni (1988) proposed three language profiles common in African countries: 1) a typical one with a "high language" (HL), usually an "exolanguage," what I have been calling Europhone languages, a national lingua franca, and local languages; 2) having two HLs, a developed national standard and an exolanguage, along with local languages; and 3) with local standard unavailable/undeveloped, and just the HL and local languages. These are simplifications, and like the hierarchical models above, they broadly minimize smaller languages that may be important locally, but they may provide a context for application of another analysis like the long-tail.

The reason for reviewing the above is that taken together, they might be used as alternative "framing" of a given sociolinguistic situation to arrive at a better understanding for planning purposes. That is, while studying the specifics of what languages are spoken in a country is essential (especially for foreigners working there), having diverse conceptual tools to understand the communication environment may be key to appropriate and successful messaging.

Leveraging the global networks of local languages

Due to emigration, there are communities of speakers of many African languages in diverse parts of the world. In other contexts (such as African language Wikipedias) it has been pointed out that these communities may be resources for development of materials.

In the case of epidemics that take on global dimensions, it may be possible to link multilingual messaging approaches between countries where a language is spoken natively, and communities of speakers in other countries (emigrants, diaspora). When fear of a wider ebola epidemic was at its height, the issue of translation was brought up in the US, for example, but apparently without making this link.

Taking multilingual extension to another level

The above is hardly comprehensive, but seeks to outline conceptual approaches to use in strategies for messaging in multilingual Africa, in emergencies like the ebola epidemic, but also general development communication. The previous post on lessons from the response to ebola, reviewed some specific issues. Taken together they are intended to promote discussion leading to more effective and appropriate use of African languages in a range of public education and development contexts.

  • Louis-Jean Calvet, 2006, Towards and Ecology of World Languages, Polity Press. (Translated by Andrew Brown from 1999, Pour une écologie des langues du monde, Plon)
  • Federica Guerini, 2006, Language Alternation Strategies in Multilingual Settings: A Case Study: Ghanaian Immigrants in Northern Italy, Peter Lang.
  • Heinz Kloss, 1978, Problems of Language Policy in South Africa, Braumüller.
  • Alberto Mioni, 1988, "Standardization Processes and Linguistic Repertoires in Africa and Europe: Some Comparative Remarks," in Peter Auer and Aldo di Luzio, eds., Variation and Convergence: Studies in Social Dialectology, Walter de Gruyter.
  • Abram de Swaan, 2001, Words of the World: The Global Language System, 1st ed., Polity Press.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Multilingual extension in Africa: The response to Ebola

Various earlier posts on this blog have discussed the importance of African languages in extension and development from general and tactical points of view (with particular reference to agriculture). Also during the course of the ebola epidemic in West Africa (which peaked in 2014-5), a number of posts looked at specific efforts to undertake health education and ebola awareness in various languages, and proposed systematically sharing, vetting, improving, and providing for re-use of translated and original materials in African languages.

This post looks from several different angles at multilingual messaging, including translation, over the course of the ebola epidemic. It will be followed by another post considering what strategies one might identify for future responses to emergencies - as well as less urgent public education needs - in multilingual contexts.

First, however, a quick note concerning summaries or evaluations of the linguistic dimension of the ebola response. As far as I am aware, there is no comprehensive overview or analysis. Reports from major organizations involved in the ebola response barely mention language (at the end of this post is a quick review). Perhaps the only report specifically on language and translation in the response was done by the international NGO Translators Without Borders, which was prominent in arranging translations of ebola materials into many languages (not just in West Africa): "Words of Relief  – Ebola Crisis Learning Review" (29 May 2015).  For a little bit broader view, but without pretense to completeness, I posted a summary largely reflecting content on this blog: "Ebola messaging in African languages - taking stock and looking ahead" (12 Dec. 2015, on LinkedIn). Both of the above proposed some lessons for the future.

Even lists of resources and websites, mainly done for reference or reporting during the period of the epidemic, are not comprehensive (for example, here). As I'll discuss below, one reason has to do with the scale or "layer" at which these operate, meaning that local activities either tend to be missed by international activities (which do the reports we see), or just aren't seen as falling in their scope. But it may also just be that information didn't travel or networks weren't connected. When researching ebola projects recently, for instance, I discovered an analysis of an interesting multilingual cellphone messaging project in Guinea called "Polly" from a group at Carnegie Melon University - something I personally had not seen mentioned elsewhere. Are there others?

Image by Chris55, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Ebola messaging in African languages

It is useful to disaggregate as much as possible several interrelated aspects of the process of responding to a crisis like ebola in a multilingual context: time; space; demographics of languages; the levels or layers of activity (international, national, provincial, local); modes of developing information in diverse languages (translation, interpretation, and creation*); media (print, media, mobile, in person); and organizational policies.

  • Time: Information about the epidemic came most quickly in English and French - official languages and main languages of media, the aid community, and the medical community. There was a lag in getting information in other languages of the affected countries. Major efforts to address this took a while to get going - according to TWB's report (cited above) its translation efforts began in November 2014 (though it seemed to have started some work in August), which was around the peak of the epidemic (per graph of cases above). Ad-hoc interpretation of incoming information on local levels (local radio, community meetings) was probably ongoing from relatively early in the cycle, with more organized efforts later on, though documentation is limited.
  • Space: Three countries were most hard-hit by the epidemic, and within those some regions within them more so than others. Responses obviously tried to address those, but logistics and information (such as for ebola education) tend to move from center to periphery. Data, on the other hand, may move from periphery to center by one or another means. Neither is perfect, but they evidently took time, especially early in the epidemic, even where there was mobile technology. Since the spatial distances were accompanied by language differences (different languages, different varieties of a language, or even different competencies in a same language variety), there was added time and evidently more potential for misunderstanding. All of this is in theory - I have seen no discussions of spatial dimensions of the response (looking in particular for the impact on information flows).
    • Linguistic demography: One dimension of linguistic demography is of course who speaks what where. Another is that on the country level, speakers of some languages are more numerous than others overall. Translations in languages more widely spoken on the national level were apparently done before less spoken ones. This makes sense on a broad scale but where less widely spoken languages dominate in a local areas, these likely were used orally (the backstory to the murder of health workers in Womey, Guinea included mention of local languages; a story from neighboring Côte d'Ivoire offered a peak at interpretation on the village level), but otherwise may not have received much attention. The only project I heard of that focused on translations in "smaller" languages was one organized by SIL in the neighboring Casamance region of Senegal (mentioned here).
    • Levels/layers: International aid and NGOs, national administration and services, and local communities and their local and extra-local networks seemed to operate on different and often only selectively interacting levels, especially early in the cycle. This dynamic meant that what happened or was being said on one level may or may not have had (immediate) effect on, or even in the extreme not been known by the others. And where information and diverse languages are involved, gaps and even contradictions (the latter in the form for example of misinformation about what ebola is or its treatment) seemed to emerge fairly quickly especially in critical early stages of an emergency.
    • Modes: Translation efforts focused on standard texts or posters, especially on the level of international aid and NGOs, but also some national level print media, and governmental and non-governmental entities. Interpretation and creation of information in African languages were more national and local in character - meetings, individual contacts, blogs. In the case of media (print, radio, TV) content about ebola, it is not clear the mode in which it was rendered in African languages (translation, interpretation, or creation*). For example, two international organizations working with media - International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) - had projects with community radio stations to broadcast messages in local languages, but in neither case was it clear how that was done (which languages, whether oral translation from Europhone scripts or scripts pre-translated in target languages, what training, etc.). An example of community contacts in local languages to spread information about ebola in Liberia was given by International Rescue Committee (IRC) - the person in the example was a physician assistant and evidently fluent in the target language, so able to put information in his own words ("creation" in this model) to fit the needs and questions/challenges as he encountered them.
    • Media: Ebola messaging in African languages was conveyed on diverse media (print, poster, TV, radio, blogs, video, and mobile apps) as well as via community meetings and individual contacts. I am not aware of any studies of media activity during the ebola epidemic that might include discussion of languages used. An exception is information about mobile media used during the epidemic - "mobile-based interactive voice response technology," and apps like the SAWBO animations with African language voice-overs and the abovementioned "Polly." Also, an observation mentioned in an earlier posting that the dominant languages used in each means of communication tended to differ, such that in Nigeria supposedly the higher tech media used more English and the in person and community communication tended to be in first languages.
    • Organizations and languages: The observation by Nadia Berger and Grace Tang based on TWB's work translating ebola messages that "translation is not always considered a priority by governments and aid agencies" echoes experience more generally in international development. This is a major structural hurdle to more effective use of African languages in response to crises like the ebola epidemic, in health education, and indeed in all aspects of development. Do organizations and agencies have policies with regard to languages in the multilingual societies struck by the epidemic, or was the linguistic dimension of their work handled as an incidental consideration really given less priority in the face of a very physical crisis, despite its relevance to successful public education and control of disease transmission?
    With the latter point in mind, it is worth taking a quick look at whether and how language as a factor did or did not figure in reports of organizations involved in response to the ebola epidemic.

    Language in reports on ebola responses?

    Reports on ebola response efforts by Medecins Sans Frontiers, World Health Organization, and IRC did not mention languages or translation, nor did an analysis of the international ebola response by the UK Overseas Development Institute's Humanitarian Policy Group.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to its credit, did in its report mention language as a factor: "The Road to Zero: CDC's Response to the Ebola Epidemic." (Recall that CDC's ebola information resources included a few in Malinké - a variety of Manding). The two specific mentions merit a closer look:
    • A CDC worker with "intermediate" French worked with people Guinea's forest region, of which perhaps only one per village might speak French, to "translate important  health messages into the local language" and train local workers. An impressive effort, but the kind of situation where available language support - people with better French and acknowledged erudition in the local language(s) - could help assure accuracy of translations and messages in the local language. Also, since that part of Guinea has several local languages, it is not clear which was the focus of efforts
    • A training of midwives and cleaners was held in the Malinké language "since they do  not speak French, the official language of Guinea." Looked at another way, a big reason to use an important first language and lingua franca like Malinké would be that this is understood better, and that an advantage of training using such languages is that it could arguably better prepare trainees for work with patients who may also speak them better than the Europhone official language, French. (Another possibility might be a bilingual format with relevant African and Europhone languages, arguably better preparing trainees for contexts they will encounter.) 
    Reports or website content of all but a few of the 67 organizations on USAID-CIDI's list of NGOs involved in ebola response also did not discuss languages or translation (to be fair, a few of those which didn't were only involved in logistics of shipping supplies). CIDI's list is extensive, but notable among the omissions is TWB, certainly the most prominent international NGO facilitating translation of ebola materials. The exceptions which did mention language include:
    Another organization on the CIDI list, Mali Health Organizing Project, used Bambara in its ebola response, as one would expect (for example in a factsheet), but did not mention this linguistic dimension in its report or website.

    In all of these instances it would be helpful to have any materials developed/used for review (were they saved?) and incorporate them in archives for potential reuse (per 2Ds & 4Rs).

    Perspectives of health workers & patients?

    Another level at which language is important in such an epidemic is that of the interaction between health workers and the patients. For a glimpse of this issue, see two personal accounts by Western nurses about the language gap between them and patients (in and It would not of course have been possible to train foreign health workers in any of the local languages they would encounter, given the time factor, but one wonders if a couple of words or phrases might have made the difficult experience a bit more bearable for caregiver and patient (especially the younger ones).

    * Note on these 3 terms. On the first two, there seems to be a gap in the terminology: "translation," strictly speaking, refers to text, as distinct from "interpretation" being defined as oral and in person (physically or virtually). This leaves out what we might call oral translation, or interpretation of a source either received as text (announcer on radio reading in one language but giving the meaning in another) or heard in one language (in a meeting or on media) but transmitted orally in another language at a later time. These kinds of cross-language sharing are common in multilingual societies with rich oral traditions, and I suggest in this context they be considered as forms of interpretation (keep in mind the range of meaning of "interpretation" as an art). "Creation" is intended to cover instances where the writer (for example of a blog) or speaker (many possible scenarios) is conveying their understanding of a subject in their own words - which happen to be in a language different than that of the main international media, medical research, etc. Of course the lines among these three are not rigid, but I think it is useful to retain them as more or less archetypes of different ways information about ebola was communicated in African languages. (The neologism "transcreation" has specific applications, but might constructively be adapted for use somewhere within this space.)