Identifying good practices in safeguarding endangered languages in Sub-Saharan Africa



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UNESCO meeting

“Identifying good practices in safeguarding endangered languages in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Addis Ababa, 9 and 10 February 2007
General report

I. Introduction
The meeting was organized by UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Section in cooperation with the UNESCO Addis Ababa Office in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) on 9 and 10 February 2007. It was the second of a series of two meetings organized in the framework of the UNESCO/Norway Fund-in-Trust project “Capacity-building for safeguarding languages and oral traditions and expressions in Sub-Saharan Africa”.
The meeting brought together about 40 participants from 22 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, representatives of university departments and national and regional research institutions specialized in African languages. The discussions focused on concrete experiences, good practices and lessons related to the projects carried out by African experts for the safeguarding of endangered languages.
Well before the meeting, a call for submissions was distributed among African university departments and national research institutions dealing with African languages asking for contributions in the following areas: (a) university curricula strengthening skills and methodologies for documenting and safeguarding endangered languages; (b) research partnerships for language description between endangered language communities and linguists/universities; (c) community and academic collaboration in preparing and publishing endangered language materials (orthographies, grammars, primers, etc.) and other revitalisation efforts; (d) formal and non-formal education using endangered languages; (e) safeguarding activities for oral traditions and expressions involving endangered languages; (f) the use of public media, and information and communication technologies in safeguarding endangered languages.
On the basis of the proposals received, 22 were chosen for presentation during the meeting. In addition, 13 experts representing institutions dealing with Ethiopian languages and based in Addis Ababa were invited. Based on the abstracts submitted, the following three sessions were put on the agenda:

1. Research partnerships for safeguarding endangered languages (language description and preparation of language materials);

2. University curricula strengthening skills and methodologies for documenting and safeguarding endangered languages;

3. Formal and non-formal education methods using endangered languages.


The meeting was opened by H.E. Mr. Mohamouda Ahmed Gass, State Minister of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia who informed the participants about Ethiopia’s cultural policies which pay due attention to Ethiopian languages. The opening address was followed by words of welcome by Ms Fumiko Ohinata, representing the Director of UNESCO Addis Ababa Office, and introductory remarks by Ms Sabine Kube from UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Section.
Each of the three sessions started with short presentations of 10 minutes each illustrating concrete projects and providing the input for further discussion at the end of each session. The afternoon of the second and last meeting day was an occasion to summarize the debates of the three sessions, to concentrate again on central questions raised, to come forward with recommendations for future cooperation and to strengthen new partnerships. The facilitator of the meeting was Mr Felix Ameka, a Ghanaian linguist working at the University of Leiden.
The following section of this report provides a summary of the presentations and debates, grouped under the three main discussion points mentioned above.

II. Summary of presentations and debates
Theme 1: Research partnerships for safeguarding endangered languages (language description and preparation of language material)
Two sessions of the meeting were devoted to this focal issue. They were chaired by Ms Hirut Woldemariam, Department of Linguistics at the University of Addis Ababa, and by Mr Girma Demeke, Ethiopian Languages Research Center, of the same University. The debates were introduced by twelve project presentations showing experiences in research partnerships established between universities and speaker communities to implement safeguarding measures for endangered languages (see summaries of the presentations in Annex 3).
Although the twelve project presentations showed a wide range of activities, they are usually composed of three main components: (a) preparatory work in form of sociolinguistic surveys defining the current situation of the language to be studied and determining the safeguarding measures to be adopted; (b) data collection to study the phonology, morphology and syntax of the language and (c) preparation of language materials (orthography guides, reading and writing manuals, teacher guides, word lists, small dictionaries, grammars).
The ensuing debate touched upon the aspects common to the projects presented and the main challenges that African linguists face in assisting speaker communities in safeguarding their languages.
The following points were subject of further discussion:
1. Developing guidelines for planning and implementing language documentation and revitalization activities
The presentations showed a great variety of approaches to language documentation. The exchange among the participants helped to better understand how projects might be designed to achieve the expected results. The experts expressed a need for better coordination in language documentation and agreed to work on guidelines for, for instance, orthography development, dictionary and teaching manual design and for effective and equitable cooperation between researchers and speaker communities. Such guidelines would help to streamline the work and to advise linguists wanting to engage in language documentation work. It was agreed upon that they should also address ethical implications for cooperation with communities. Prof. Mtenje from the University of Malawi and Prof. Sadembouo of the University of Yaounde, Cameroon, volunteered to propose draft guidelines for orthography development which would also address the issue of standardization. Draft guidelines will be shared among the participants of the two meetings and submitted to ACALAN (African Academy of Languages) for wider distribution.

Furthermore, the BASAL method developed and widely used in Cameroon to develop oral into written languages was appreciated by the experts as an efficient and not too costly way of organizing safeguarding activities in cooperation with communities. The project draws from a wide network of voluntary language workers including young linguists. Based on language description (phonology, morphology, syntax and collection of vocabulary lists), language material, such as mural alphabets, orthography guides, transition manuals and story books are prepared. The approximate duration for one project is two years. It was hoped that this method could be extended to other countries. The experts were informed that the BASAL method might be included in UNESCO’s future Register of Good Practices in Language Preservation. It was furthermore decided to continue collecting and disseminating approved project designs for carrying out community-based language documentation. The experts were invited to submit outlines of successful projects in this area for evaluation in the framework of the UNESCO Register mentioned above.


2. Working towards strong partnerships with communities
Better cooperation with communities was another central issue. Several examples showed how university departments successfully assist communities in their safeguarding efforts. It was made clear that without the approval, clear commitment and active involvement of speaker communities, safeguarding efforts remain in the academic realm and do not have any impact on the vitality of the language in the community. Proposals for language documentation should ideally come from the communities. It was recommended that linguists cooperate with local language associations and the wide range of NGOs working in the field of safeguarding languages. In this regard, it was suggested that the Data base of African university departments and research institutions dealing with African languages, recently created by UNESCO and ACALAN, be extended to take stock of other initiatives and actors in the field of safeguarding endangered languages (community-based projects carried out by NGOs, local language associations, etc.).
Examples from Botswana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and South Africa showed that the strong commitment of the speaker communities may also prevent requests for payment often highlighted in other contexts as an obstacle to cooperation with communities.
3. Address negative attitudes of speakers, decision makers and academics towards African languages
Negative attitudes of different groups of people e.g. the speakers of the languages, the intelligentsia (academics), university administrators and decision makers turned out to be a major problem. When promoting the use and safeguarding of African languages, linguists often face a low level of awareness about the value and importance of their languages among speakers and decision makers. Examples from Malawi and Burkina Faso show however that the speakers are the best advocates of their languages. The experts discussed possible ways of sensitizing the general public. Initiatives in Malawi, Burundi and the Central African Republic use local radio programmes for awareness raising campaigns. The Center for Language Studies at the University of Malawi organizes annual national language conferences bringing together different actors in language safeguarding including local language associations and representatives of speaker communities of minority languages. It was furthermore stressed that initial information sessions about the aims and advantages of language documentation should be an integral part of community-based language safeguarding projects implemented by universities. In addition, it was pointed out that linguists themselves may also need more awareness raising and attitudinal change. It was therefore suggested to integrate modules on the sociology of language into the university curriculum to help professional linguists and students to better understand their role and enable them to convince speakers about the importance of African languages in development.
The experts stressed that the negative attitudes of speakers towards their language are influenced by a complex set of factors which have to be addressed in parallel to achieve changes. Lack of opportunities to use the languages outside of homes and their apparent economic irrelevance have been mentioned by the experts as two major points. Advocacy is therefore also needed in the private sector and especially at government level where appropriate language policies should be developed to assist the “intellectualization” of languages. In this connection, examples from Burkina Faso and Malawi showed that speakers who are convinced about the importance of their language are capable of forming an important pressure group which can bring about changes in language policies at the governmental level.
4. Financial constraints
The majority of the university projects presented during the two meeting days were made possible thanks to external funding (NUFU, Swiss cooperation, Volkswagen Stiftung, DAAD, etc.). It was noted that there exist quite a few funding opportunities and it was suggested to organise training workshops for linguists in writing grant applications. An inquiry about possible support for such a training programme will be made with the Hans-Rausing-Endangered Languages Programme (SOAS, London).
On the other hand, it is crucial that community-based language documentation projects be integrated in university research policies and that university administrations or local and/or central governments be convinced to take over and sustain projects after initial external funding.

Theme 2: University curricula strengthening skills and methodologies for documenting and safeguarding endangered languages
The presentations and discussions on theme 2 and theme 3 were chaired by Neville Alexander, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
As already highlighted above, African linguists have a crucial role to play in the “intellectualization” of African languages - the development of as many African languages as possible for a wide use in all domains, both private and public. The experts insisted on a need for a new agenda for university departments of linguistics. To be able to support the recent greater attention to African cultures and languages at the continental level, especially promoted by the African Union through ACALAN, a more pragmatic approach to language documentation is needed which also takes into account socio-cultural aspects of language. Both academic obligations and obligations towards the communities will have to be satisfied. To be able to take up this challenge, professional staff is needed which is trained in modern language documentation techniques, has a background in sociolinguistics and is prepared to assist speaker communities in safeguarding their languages.
The presentations and discussions in the second session of the meeting showed that this task needs a major change in the approach adhered to by departments of linguistics at African universities whose research policy has so far been mainly oriented towards theoretical and descriptive linguistics.
The presentations which opened the session tackled the challenges to be faced when organizing programmes which provide students with skills for engaging in language safeguarding at community level. Drawing from the example of the new Master Programme on Language Documentation of Local Languages established at the University of Uyo, Nigeria, Ms Eno-Abasi Urua highlighted the central elements of this type of programmes. A precondition for their establishment is a favourable research policy at the university. It appeared that many university departments concentrate their research work on major African languages only. The experts agreed to advocate giving priority to smaller languages and the urgency of documenting as many languages as possible. At the University of Uyo it was decided to devote the research work at the department of linguistics to successively documenting all languages spoken in the region covered by the university. Based on a thorough study of the situation of the languages in the area, one language is chosen every year for documentation. Students at the Masters’ level are actively involved and field studies are a central part of the curriculum. The studies programme is organized in an interdisciplinary way involving also staff from the Department of Computer Sciences to allow the use of modern technologies for research, archiving and presentation of the language and cultural data.
Ms Catherine Kitetu presented an initiative taken by linguists at the University of Egerton to widen the scope of the department of linguists and to work also on Kenyan languages other than Kiswahili. The example showed particularly well that advocacy is needed to make this major change happen.
The debate following the two above-mentioned presentations showed that there have been recently substantial developments in many universities. The participants were informed about a programme to be started at the University of Lomé, Togo, which will prepare students to get engaged in literacy initiatives and provide them with techniques to do language documentation, develop teaching material, train local language workers and organize literacy classes. The Department of Linguistics at the University of Botswana offers, among other things, specializations in field research methods and in sociolinguistics. The University of Yaounde, Cameroon, in close cooperation with ANACLAC, plans to introduce courses in “Teaching national languages” to accompany the new national policy allowing the use of national languages in education. The University of Kinshasa also offers classes providing students with methods for fieldwork and language description but plans to add modules on sociolinguistics and literacy activities. Ethiopia has a broad experience in language documentation. The various departments and institutions involved in this field provide courses in applied language documentation both to students in linguistics but also to people working in other institutions working on language development. The same approach is followed at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, where training is also given to community members.
The experts were furthermore informed that one of the five core-projects developed by ACALAN envisages the launching of a pan-African Master and PhD programme in applied linguistics (PANMAPAL).

Theme 3: Formal and non-formal education methods using endangered languages
In addition to preparing African languages for wider use through language documentation and preparation of language materials, African linguists in African universities departments are also involved in projects for promoting the use of African languages in formal and non-formal education. The third session of the meeting was dedicated to this issue. Four contributions had been submitted for presentation, providing information about projects in Burkina Faso, Ghana, the Central African Republic and Benin.
Norbert Nikiema presented a pilot project carried out since several years at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The project consists in using eight local languages in an educational programme for children who drop out of the regular school programme. The programme follows the “additive model” using local languages as medium of instruction in primary education and teaching French as a subject. The linguists of the department are part of language teams established for each language which develop teaching materials. The successful pilot phase at primary school level led to the extension of the programme to additional schools and additional languages. It is also envisaged to provide bilingual secondary education.
The Buli literacy project introduced by Paul Agbedor of the University of Ghana is part of a larger NUFU-funded language safeguarding project for several Ghanaian languages. The speaker presented the literacy component of this project as a good practice example showing step-by-step how to plan and prepare a literacy programme (see details in the summary in Annexe 3). To ensure that the project is relevant to the community, an initial needs assessment among the speakers determined what domains had to be covered by the literacy classes and the manuals.
The contributions from the Central African Republic and from Benin presented preparatory work providing the necessary documentation and materials for local languages which allow their extensive use in education. The Institute of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bangui has been charged to develop terminologies in Sango for 21 school subjects which will be used to prepare the respective manuals. In the same way, Flavien Gbeto detailed how the Linguistics Department of the University of Abomey-Calavi contributes to developing terminologies for the use of languages of Benin both in primary and secondary education and at university level.
In the following discussions, the experts reaffirmed their commitment to the development and revitalization of African languages and their willingness to get involved actively in preparing, supporting and promoting the use of these languages at all levels of formal education and in non-formal education. The experts confirmed the need for a change in research policies to allow for a focus on applied linguistics. In this sense, it was recommended that African linguists take the initiative to advocate for school programmes using African languages as media of instruction. Governments and the relevant ministries should acknowledge that the capacities necessary to prepare and implement these programmes do exist at African universities. In addition, getting the full support of the communities for these projects was again highlighted as a crucial factor for success.

III. Conclusions and recommendations
The meeting provided African linguists from all sub-regions of Sub-Saharan Africa with an opportunity to share experiences concerning the safeguarding of endangered African languages, to exchange on good practices and to hold in-depth discussions on strategies for future cooperation and projects. During the meeting, the experts discussed (a) methods and approaches used in their respective institutions, (b) planning and implementing safeguarding measures, (c) ways of cooperation with speaker communities, (d) methods to involve and train young professionals and (e) problems and obstacles encountered.
It was highlighted that, thanks to the funding by the government of Norway, this initiative arrived at a decisive and propitious moment. The favourable context of African renaissance and of the African Union giving an important place to local cultures and languages in African development must be capitalized to take action for the promotion of African languages among decision makers.
The 22 short presentations and the discussions in the meeting showed a wide range of encouraging experiences. The interaction provided an opportunity for defining the main challenges to be faced and the steps to be taken to ensure the participation of African linguists in community-based projects and in language safeguarding. The three major obstacles singled out by the experts were (1) university research policies favouring and rewarding theoretical work focusing on majority languages, while not encouraging linguists to engage in community-based safeguarding measures for endangered languages, (2) lack of appropriate studies programmes preparing students for applied research work and (3) lack of guidelines for planning and implementing safeguarding measures and assistance to communities wishing to safeguard their languages, which would allow to streamline activities and achieve sustainable results.
The following recommendations were brought forward during the meeting:
1. Prepare and disseminate guidelines or standards for carrying out main safeguarding measures such as orthography development, dictionary and teaching manual design and for effective and equitable research-community cooperation;
2. Continue collecting and disseminating approved models of university studies programmes and curricula preparing students for community-based language documentation;
3. Continue collecting and sharing good practices in safeguarding endangered languages, for instance through submission to the UNESCO Register of Good Practices in Language Preservation;
4. Extend the UNESCO/ACALAN Data base on university departments and national research institutions to take stock also of other initiatives and actors in the field of safeguarding endangered languages (community-based, carried out by NGOs, etc.);
5. Sustain the newly established network of African experts and institutions through setting up an email list for disseminating information, extending it to African universities other than those who took part in the meeting;
6. Continue advocacy initiatives among governments, universities and speaker communities to raise awareness of the importance of safeguarding African languages. The experts agreed to send a resolution to universities in Africa (through the Association of African Universities) calling on them to adapt their research and teaching curricula to the new challenges, to engage actively in the documentation and safeguarding of African languages and to encourage students to choose African languages both as a subject of investigation and for writing academic papers. A recommendation is also to be sent to the African Union governments to provide the political and legal framework for the use of African languages in all domains and levels of life in the countries concerned;
7. Use summer schools as a means of providing extra training for students, professional linguists and community members in planning language safeguarding activities and in the techniques, principles and methods of language documentation. Funds should be sought from various sources. An application to the HRLP is currently being prepared for a summer school in 2008 for the West African region in conjunction with the West African Languages Society and its Congress;
8. Link language safeguarding projects to the safeguarding of African cultures and traditional knowledge. The experts suggested that one way of safeguarding such knowledge would be through projects based in the communities and undertaken by the community members with the help of experts. UNESCO was invited to help seeking funds for continent-wide community-based lexicography and thesaurus work.
It was highlighted that an appropriate facilitator for these initiatives would be ACALAN, the African Academy of Languages. As this newly launched pan-African institution is still in the process of establishing its organisational structure and secretariat, UNESCO was asked to try to assist the network in the mean time in collecting and disseminating information.


Annex 1 Meeting agenda
UNESCO meeting “Identifying good practices for safeguarding African languages”

Addis Ababa, 9-10 February 2007

- Agenda -

(The working languages of the meeting were English and French. Translation was provided in both languages.)


Friday, 9 February 2007
9:00-9.45 Opening

H.E. Mr. Mohamouda Ahmed GASS, State Minister of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia

Mr Nureldin SATTI, Director UNESCO Addis Ababa Office

9:45-10:30 Research partnerships for endangered languages (language description and preparation of language material)



Chair: Ms. Hirut WOLDEMARIAM (Ethiopia)

Notes: Mr Norbert NIKIEMA (FR); Mr Paul AGBEDOR (EN)
- Mr Zelalem LEYEW (University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Research on endangered languages at the University of Addis Ababa

- Mr Etienne SADEMBOUO (ANACLAC, Cameroon)



The BASAL programme in Cameroon
10:30-11:00 Coffee break
11:00-13:00 Research partnerships for endangered languages (language description and preparation of language material)

Chair: Ms Hirut WOLDEMARIAM (Ethiopia)

Notes: Mr Norbert NIKIEMA (FR); Mr Paul AGBEDOR (EN)
- Mr Mhlobo JADEZWENI (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa)

The strengthening of the 9 official African languages in South Africa

- Mr Denis BUKURU (University of Bujumbura, Burundi)


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