Friday, December 02, 2016

Quick comments on language in Mali today

In transit on the way back from a quick 3 weeks in Mali as part of a short-term consultancy with the Mali Justice Project. More on the project at another time, hopefully, but here are some quick (and unfortunately superficial) observations regarding language in Mali while they're still fresh in the memory.

This was my first time in Mali since 2008. Bamako has grown considerably, and from observations and descriptions, there is a much larger urban middle class. However, that has not seemed to have been accompanied by a shift to French in everyday language (as one might see in some other cities in Francophone states). Bambara seems to be spoken everywhere, with French and occasional other languages as well.

As an obvious foreigner, efforts to use Bambara are generally met positively or matter-of-factly (to the extent one's accent hasn't obscured the fact one is using the language). That was great, though I admit it almost got a bit disconcerting to have airport security shift out of role to banter with the toubab speaking broken Bambara.

Only one real opportunity to speak Fulfulde, and that with a colleague in the project office. I found though that the whoosh of Fulfulde I was able to call up (to my surprise) was hard to turn off at first. Part of that is shifting between too many languages for a former monolingual (even crossed wires between Bambara and Chinese once - an old occasional lapse I ascribe to the similar structures of the languages and how I think my brain handles them).

In traveling outcountry to Segou and Sikasso, also found Bambara easy to use in various settings. With Segou that is expected, since it is ethnically Bambara (and the center of a major precolonial Bambara kingdom), but even in Sikasso, the major city in the ethnically Senufo/Minianka region of Mali, there was no problem speaking Bambara with anyone small merchants to heads of services. In fact, a 2-day project meeting of people involved in commerce, transportation, and services de contrôle in Sikasso worked mainly in Bambara after starting in French.

Not so much signage in Bambara, though on the road to Segou did notice a couple of signs with N'Ko (wasn't able to get photos, sorry). Orange - the phone company - had a TV ad with "I ni tié" (i ni cɛ ≈ thank you). Frenchified renditions of Bambara text are frequent in the written forms I saw in such short usage, which generally accompanied French.

Also had the chance to visit the ACALAN offices - more about that in another post.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Some illustrated Senufo proverbs

"Yì fwù ɲara na" (welcome)
On the margins of some other research, I was recently able to pay a visit to the Centre de Recherche pour la Sauvegarde et la Promotion de la Culture Sénoufo (CRSPCS) in Sikasso, Mali. Although the purpose of going there was not primarily language-related, it is worth noting that among the CRSPCS's areas of activity are research and publication on the Senufo language(s) spoken in southern Mali, northern Ivory Coast, and western Burkina Faso.

The center was founded in 2005, the result of an effort begun by Rev. Emilio Escudero Yangüela . It serves educational roles, including in coordination with the regional museum in Sikasso, and has collected cultural objects that are on display. (A short video in French that evidently aired on Malian TV gives a more complete introduction.)

In a tour of the grounds and buildings housing collections - for which we thank Mr. Elie Yaya Bambe - one notices several outside walls that are decorated with proverbs and illustrations. Some of these follow:
Dù fànŋà kà mà sâ, ká mū dí ŋkwōō wólò, kìmàhā mpɔ́rɔ́ mūnā.
If a donkey gives you a kick, and you reply in kind, it is better than you.

Ná mū sí kàcɛ̀nnɛ̀ pyǐ kùnùŋɔ́nā, mùmàhā kǐyǎhǎ ywɔ̌hɔ̌ ɲɔ́ná.
If you want to be good to the tortoise, put it close to the water.

Kùtùnɔ̌ ká ncyɛ̌ jyègěě kǎnɛ̀ŋɛ̀nǐ, ŋkórò kǐyɛ̀.
If the monkey refuses to enter into the dew, it ends up being all alone.

Mūhà bìmâ lē mā khɔ́hɔ́ɲɛ́ɛ́n ɲìī nī, mū màhā ŋkhɔ̀hɔ̀lì mā yɛ̀.
If you put dust in the eyes of your dancing partner, you dance alone.
I did not get a clear answer about which Senufo language these proverbs are written in, but the main Senufo variety in Sikasso is Supyire. (The tone markings as seen in the paintings are reproduced as best as possible as text in the captions; English translations from the French translations. Corrections of course welcome.)

Senufo proverbs, riddles, and tales

The CRSPCS has not published Senufo proverbs, but it has produced small books of riddles and tales in Senufo with parallel French text. One riddle from Devinettes Sénoufo, Vol 1 (Elie Yaya Mpê Bamba and Bernard Delay, eds., Collection "Wu Nire," Harmattan Burkina, 2015):
Ŋuni a tɔɔn, tɛgɛlɛ bàa. (It is so long that it has no end.)
Kudo. (A path.)
Note the more sparing use of tone marks. Judging from the CRSPCS publications I saw, and by an online dictionary of Mamara/Minianka (another Senufo language), usage of tone marks in writing generally may be more sparing than what one sees in the proverbs above.

For more proverbs, there is a collection published by Timothy F. Garrard in 2001 as La sagesse d'un peuple : 2000 proverbes Senoufo (link to description; this work is not yet available online).

Monday, October 10, 2016

"Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ" & Ghanaian language input support

Came across mention on Twitter of the Ghanaian play "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ - A Tale of Two Men" but with the Ga words in the title written "Wogb3 j3k3":
In fact, looking at Twitter and at the web via a Google search, one notes both this workaround and the correct spelling, as well as the ASCIIfied version, "wogbe jeke."

7 vowels and a 5 vowel keyboard

Ga, a Ga-Dangme language of southernmost Ghana, has a complex vowel system, with seven vowels distinguished in its writing system: a; e; i; o; and u; plus ɛ ("open e") and ɔ ("open o"). The latter two are used to write many other African languages such as Akan, Ewe, Mende, Bambara, and Lingala.1 (These characters, like a number of other Latin letters, are also in the International Phonetic Alphabet.)

Many fonts include the ɛ and ɔ, however typing them is not facilitated by standard keyboards. There are keyboard layouts specially conceived for Ga (see below for a list), as well as for Akan, Ewe, and others. However, there apparently are not any keyboards to enable multilingual input - such as an Akan title included in a tweet in English. Or if there are, they are not widely used. Hence resort to "3" for "ɛ" and ")" (the right parentheses) for "ɔ."

In African Languages in a Digital Age (p. 61) I outlined several workarounds for text including extended Latin characters not supported in fonts or input systems, a summary that was a revision of something published a decade earlier.2 I had not, however, noted the use of numbers or symbols among the "substitution solutions." Ade Sawyerr, who has worked with Ga input issues, mentions observing these particular substitutions - "3" and ")" - as well as others, such as "rj" for the letter "ŋ" ("eng"), which is also used in Ga.

In any event, the resort in the mid-2010s to 3's and )'s to type words in languages like Ga, Akan, and Ewe that use them is evidence of missing input options on the devices used, or inconvenience of existing options, or perhaps lack of awareness of available keyboard apps on the part of users.

Some keyboard layouts for Ga

Over the last couple of decades, and especially since the availability of keyboard utilities like Keyman and Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC), there have been many keyboard layouts developed for languages such as those of Ghana that have extended Latin orthographies. A full discussion is beyond this blog post, but generally speaking, keyboards incorporating characters not on the standard computer keyboards work either through changing key assignments (such as "q" is not used in Ga, so "ŋ" is substituted for it) or via a combination or sequence of key strokes. The solution with changed keys seems to be more common on mobile device applications, whereas both approaches are found in keyboard layouts used on computers.

Kasahorow Android keyboards
menu selection
A selection of Ga keyboards:
There likely are others for Ga (and the closely related Dangme). There definitely are a number for other languages of Ghana such as Akan (or its varieties, Twi Ashanti, Twi Akuapem, and Fante), Ewe, and Dagaare.

However, more could be done to facilitate multilingual typing, so that one doesn't have to switch keyboards or keep track of key sequences to insert something like Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ in an English tweet, or say a Hausa word with a hooked letter in a text in Akan (hooked letters are not part of the Akan orthography). Could for example an extra line of keys be added to touchscreen keyboards - say on a Ghana English keyboard - with the extra characters needed for Ghanaian languages?

About "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ"

Wogbɛ jɛkɛ is a Ga term with meanings of "we have come from far" and "our journey is still long." It is used in the title of two plays written by Chief Abdul Moomen Muslim about the historical events, beginning with "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ: Birth of a Nation," which depicts pre-colonial history of what is now Ghana, and followed by "Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ: The Tale of Two Men," which is centered around the stories of J.B. Danquah and Kwame Nkrumah during Ghana's independence struggle.

1. Some Nigerian languages like Yoruba and Igbo instead use sub-dotted characters - and - for these vowels.
2. Don Osborn, 2001, "The knotty problem of using African languages for e-mail and internet," Balancing Act News Update, 69.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Internationalizing computer science in Africa

Last year I posted on whether Unicode and internationalization (i18n) is included in any computer science curriculum in Africa. A recent comment to that post by Andre Schappo asking whether there are any organizations in Africa promoting internationalization of university curricula more generally offers another angle to approach this issue.

Part of Unicode charts for Ethiopic/Ge'ez
Andre's question follows a post on his blog about two organizations that promote internationalization of teaching curricula, one in the UK and the other in Australia. Depending on how one defines promotion of internationalization in higher education, one might add many other initiatives and consortia which seek in one way or another to develop and support international or global studies. The degree to which such efforts overlap with or might impact the content of computer science courses is an interesting question. In my limited experience, international/global studies mainly addresses disciplines in other areas (social sciences, humanities, certain applied disciplines). It certainly is worth asking how a program of internationalization at a university would apply to computer science and see how the discussion goes.

However, in the case of Africa - and also Asia - internationalization of the computer science curriculum would seem to follow as much from attention to localization as to international and global perspectives.

In any event, this issue of how Unicode and i18n figure in computer science instruction - worldwide as well as in Africa - is one that is important for technical and language planning reasons as well as for the same reasons that motivate attention to internationalization in the higher education generally.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

International Literacy Day: Let them write!

One of the most common objections I have heard from international development colleagues about literacy training in African languages is "What will they read?" While it is true that relatively little is published in some African languages, and next to nothing in others, such a view has problems on several levels. For example, it's easier to learn in one's first language, literacy skills in one language facilitate learning other languages, and there is a cultural cost to always and only associating formal learning with a Europhone second language. But one of the most important in my opinion, and one that I have offered as a primary defense of literacy in first languages of Africa, is that neo-literates* can write - maybe just a little, like a ledger, or maybe a lot, in stories that express and communicate in their own way.

So it is a pleasure to see the theme for this year's International Literacy Day (ILD; 8 September 2016): "Reading the Past, Writing the Future."

Are there examples of newly literate people in Africa writing in African languages? Yes of course. One is the Senegalese organization Associates in Research and Education for Development (ARED), which has actually published writing by its students. I have also heard of literacy students just writing with this new tool. There are certainly many more.

With the association of literacy with goals of "lifelong learning" - per the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - there should be a way to support and encourage neo-literate writing in first languages on a wider and more systematic basis. Not just for fun, though hopefully at least that, but for adding many diverse voices to writing the future.

Additional notes

Two African organizations were recognized this year with the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy (which along with the King Sejong Literacy Prize are awarded annually on ILD):
  • the South African Department of Basic Education’s ‘Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign
  • the Direction de l’alphabétisation et des langues nationales in Senegal for its ‘National Education Programme for Illiterate Youth and Adults through ICTs
Both programs sound interesting. I'd like to know more about how the Senegalese program used its national languages (and which ones) in ICT.

For a very interesting discussion of ILD from Malawi, see Steve Sharra's blog, Afrika Aphukira: Literacy, Language and Power: Thoughts on International Literacy Day 2016

* "A neo literate is an individual who has completed a basic literacy training programme and has demonstrated the ability and willingness to continue to learn on his or her own using the skills and knowledge attained without the direct guidance of a literacy teacher." APPEAL - Training Materials for Continuing Education Personnel (ATLP-CE) - Volume 2: Post-Literacy Programmes (APEID - UNESCO, 1993, 112 p.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

VOA Hausa Digital Content Editor

The Voice of America (VOA) is hiring a Digital Content Editor for its Hausa service. Normally I do not post jobs on Beyond Niamey, but rather do so occasionally on the Facebook African languages group. In this case I am making an exception since it seems that the person hired by VOA will be in a position to possibly help the organization finally move its Hausa web content from an ASCIIfied version to the Boko orthography - a topic that has been discussed previously on this blog.

Links to the position announcement are below, but first a quick review of the issue. The Latin-based "Boko" alphabet for Hausa includes several modified letters (technically called "extended characters") that stand for sounds not represented in the alphabet as used in English, French or other European languages. Sometimes called "hooked letters" they include: ɓ ; ɗ ; ƙ ; and in Niger, ƴ - in Nigeria 'y is written for the same sound as the last one. The capital letter forms of the four hooked letters are Ɓ Ɗ Ƙ Ƴ.

When VOA and other international radio services - notably BBC, CRI, and RDW - began websites for their respective Hausa services, the Unicode standard that facilitates display of extended Latin characters and diverse writing systems on the internet, was not in widespread use (RFI added its Hausa service later). Evidently this was the reason for resort to an ASCIIfied rendering of Hausa text (with b, d, k, and y instead of the hooked characters, which can change meanings) - older systems then in use among the audience may not have been able to handle the Unicode-encoded hooked letters.

That argument is losing credence, if it is not already meaningless. The number of systems in use old enough not to have Unicode fonts (now the norm but the earliest of them were already in systems over a decade ago) must be very few. Moreover all the 5 international radio Hausa sites use UTF-8, which displays Unicode.

So what is the current state of use of the Boko orthography (with the hooked letters) on the five sites - VOA, BBC, CRI, RDW, and RFI? I used a new way of evaluating them - actually bringing back an old trick - which is to search just the letters on the sites with Google. The best way is to use Google advanced search, or just put a sequence like this in the search window of the usual Google page:

ƙ OR ɓ OR ɗ OR ƴ

This pulls up all pages on the site with at least one of these hooked letters. You can substitute the domain of the site you want to evaluate. My results were: BBC 16 pages; RDW 7 pages; VOA, CRI, and RFI all 0. Not impressive.

What's holding them back? Inertia? Lack of a keyboard layout to easily type with the hooked letters? Lack of a spell checker for Hausa in Boko orthography?

In any event, the new Digital Content Editor for the VOA Hausa service would be in a position to make a significant contribution to that service's web content, with secondary effects on other Hausa language websites.

The position has two listings on the site: one for US citizens; and one for non-US citizens. (This sort of dual listing is normal; you see it also sometimes for internal candidates in an agency and for external candidates applying from outside the agency.) The position was announced today, 9/6/16, and closes 9/20/16.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Facebook, ISOC, and A12n

In his recent visit to Lagos, Nigeria, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that Facebook will add more African language interfaces. Meanwhile, at the African Peering and Interconnection Forum (AfPIF2016) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Internet Society (ISOC) released a report entitled "Promoting Content in Africa," which highlights the importance of internet content in African language for full access by Africans.

These two developments concerning on the one hand localization of the software for a popular social media platform, and on the other hand the creation of content, highlight the dual aspects of Africanization (A12n) of information and communication technology in/for Africa. As these processes develop, it would be useful for to find ways to integrate them as appropriate, and foster collaboration among organizations and individuals involved in either or both. (That was the intent of the African Network for Localisation, ANLoc, albeit with a focus mainly on the software and enabling aspects.)

It is possible, as the ISOC report notes, for content to be developed or translated in a language even when the software on which it is created is not localized in it. And that certainly would be the case for the less widely spoken languages, at least in the near term. However, the availability of software interfaces - whether for social media like Facebook or for production software - in at least the major African languages, would probably help even for the less-spoken ones.

Facebook sign-up in Hausa. (Source:
Facebook currently is available in the following African languages (links are to Wikipedia articles): Afrikaans; Arabic; Hausa; Kinyarwanda; Malagasy; Somali; Swahili; and Tamazight

One of the contributors to the ISOC report, Dawit Bekele, who is ISOC's African Bureau Director, was a participant in the PanAfrican Localisation Workshop in Casablanca, June 2005, and the Pan African Research on L10N Workshop & Localization Blitz in Marrakech, February 2007.