African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms

There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution.

IsiZulu is one of approximately 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. Modern science has ignored the overwhelming majority of these languages, but now a team of researchers from Africa wants to change that.

A research project called Decolonise Science plans to translate 180 scientific papers from the AfricArXiv preprint server into 6 African languages: isiZulu and Northern Sotho from southern Africa; Hausa and Yoruba from West Africa; and Luganda and Amharic from East Africa.

These languages are collectively spoken by around 98 million people. Earlier this month, AfricArXiv called for submissions from authors interested in having their papers considered for translation. The deadline is 20 August.

The translated papers will span many disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The project is being supported by the Lacuna Fund, a data-science funder for researchers in low- and middle-income countries. It was launched a year ago by philanthropic and government funders from Europe and North America, and Google.

Read more: Nature

Linguistic and biological diversity linked

Cultural diversity—indicated by linguistic diversity—and biodiversity are linked, and their connection may be another way to preserve both natural environments and Indigenous populations in Africa and perhaps worldwide, according to an international team of researchers.

“The punchline is, that if you are interested in conserving biological diversity, excluding the Indigenous people who likely helped create that diversity in the first place may be a really bad idea,” said Larry Gorenflo, professor of landscape architecture, geography and African studies, Penn State. “Humans are part of ecosystems and I hope this study will usher in a more committed effort to engage Indigenous people in conserving localities containing key biodiversity.”

Gorenflo, working with linguist Suzanne Romaine, Merton College, University of Oxford, UK, looked at 48 localities in Africa designated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Natural World Heritage Sites. These sites host “globally important natural or combined natural and cultural resources,” they report. This paper was placed online as an unedited manuscript in January 2021 ahead of final online publication in April 2021 in Conservation Biology.

They analyzed geographic information system data on Indigenous languages in these areas and found that 147 languages overlapped with the UNESCO sites. Indigenous languages occurred in all but one of the Natural World Heritage Sites examined.

“The Namib Sand Sea desert in Namibia is a pretty dry area,” said Gorenflo. “Kind of desolate, with wonderful sand dunes and natural features, but so harsh that there is no one living there as far as I know.”

But in all the other Natural World Heritage Sites in continental Africa and on nearby islands, Indigenous people not only live, but, to some extent, manage the environment in which they live and have been doing so for a long time.

Read more: Phys.org

African Schools Weigh Teaching in Local Languages

DAKAR — In Alieu Samb primary school, in a working-class section of Dakar, second-graders are learning to read in French.

Like most children in Sub-Saharan Africa, they are taught in their country’s common colonial language rather than in their mother tongue.

Linguistics professor Mbacke Diagne, of Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, wants to integrate local languages into the standard teaching curriculum.

He says most children entering primary school in Senegal have been functioning in Wolof for at least seven years beforehand.

“They have structured their world in this language,” he says, “but as soon as they get to school, all this knowledge is set aside in order to impose French.”

Diagne and others believe this slows the learning process and can discourage children from pursuing education.

According to Education Policy and Data Center statistics, Senegal’s youth literacy rate is lower than the average for other lower middle income countries, and more than half of secondary school-age children are out of school.

Organizations such as the Associates in Research and Education for Development have been piloting bilingual teaching programs in Senegalese primary schools.

Awa Ka Dia, the ARED Program Director, explained that children start simultaneously learning French and building literacy skills in either Wolof or Pulaar, which are later used as a base to read in French.

ARED currently operates in 98 primary schools spread between Dakar, the northern city of Saint-Louis, and the town of Kaolack. The pilot program ends this year, and Dia hopes results will encourage the government to fund an extended version, covering more regions and incorporating other local languages.

Read more: Voice of America

This Documentary Uncovers an Afro-Cuban Community Singing in an Almost Extinct African Language

They Are We tells a story that, were it not told by a University professor in the middle of a documentary, you’d swear couldn’t possibly be true. Emma Christopher, who’s written extensively on the Atlantic slave trade and teaches at the University of Sydney, found herself connecting a remote chiefdom in Sierra Leone with a small Afro-Cuban community in Perico whose traditional song and dances suggest a direct lineage to that Western African group. The film’s title is a direct quote from a Sierra Leonean upon watching videos of the Cuban dancers: “They are we!” he exclaimed, seeing something in the annual San Lazaro ceremony that looked all too familiar.

That’s right, a lively celebration by the proud members of the Gangá-Longobá in central Cuba eventually led Christopher to find the African village from whence the songs came from generations ago. Moreover, she arranged for these Afro-Cuban people to fly to the place where their ancestor was torn from her family, sold to slavery, and taken to the Caribbean island all those years ago.

As Christopher told an audience here in New York, “It’s completely incredible that they’ve kept these songs and dances alive for all these centuries!” The songs were being sung in a very particular kind of language — the Banta tongue — which is nearing extinction in Western Africa. Armed with this amazing story, Christopher moved to Cuba for two years and ended up getting a Fellowship from the Australian Research Council that helped her fund the finished film. In it, we see four Cubans from Perico make the journey to Sierra Leone where they are met with open arms by a community that was all too happy to get to know these long-lost family members. They Are We is a moving story that celebrates this colorful and vibrant slice of Afro-Cuban culture, and which shows the resilience of tradition even in the face of historical violence.

Read more: Remezcla

We’d have a better chance of preserving Africa’s dying languages if we learned their history

In 2008, on his first visit to China and India after taking office as prime minister, Britain’s Gordon Brown announced a plan to promote the English language across the world. Brown said he launched a website that would develop the skills of 750,000 teachers, and help two billion people learn English by 2020.

“English does not make us all the same,” Brown noted, but “it makes it possible for us to speak to each other, to better understand each other and so it is a powerful force not just for economics, business, and trade but for mutual respect and progress.”

Brown’s radical plan was considered one of the biggest initiatives in recent times to endorse English as a global language. But 60 years after independence, that’s a luxury rarely afforded to the majority of African languages. Instead of securing a firm place in our daily lives, indigenous languages have instead suffered delegitimization at social, economic, and political spheres. The expanded study of African languages has also been recent, with a majority of the scholarship taking place in European and North American universities. Significant books about Africa’s languages and literary explorations are mostly published by Western publishers like Harvard University, Ohio, and Oxford University Press.

Besides, much of the literature about the history of African languages is also inaccessible to young people—and readers—across the continent. And while research shows the cognitive advantage of knowing more than one language, students of African languages at higher institutions have drastically diminished over the years. As such, the debates about who defines a language, who can claim it, and how it affects a community or a country’s past and present is not being probed or vigorously unpacked.

Read more: Quartz Africa

Nigeria’s indigenous languages endangered, may go into extinction

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has said the country’s indigenous languages are endangered and could go into extinction in no distant future if urgent steps are not taken to reverse the trend.

In his address at the 2017 Annual Round Table on Cultural Orientation, jointly organized by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Institute for Cultural Orientation, NICO, in Kaduna on Monday, the Minister said situation reports shows ”there is a remarkable decline in the usage of our indigenous languages by our children and youth; many of them cannot read or write in their mother tongue.”

He said indigenous language newspapers have a vital role to play in reviving the fortunes of the nation’s endangered languages, if their potentials are maximized.

Read more: Premium Times

How the Swahili language took hold across Africa, and beyond

You may recognize this phrase. You may even find yourself humming an earworm of the same title from Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“It means no worries” goes the song lyric.

Disney fails to mention that “Hakuna matata” means “no worries” in Swahili. The language — known as Kiswahili in East Africa — has its roots in a small tribal Bantu language spoken along one strip of Africa’s eastern coastline. But these days, it has spread across the African continent.

Experts estimate Swahili is spoken by more than 100 million people. To put it another way: More people speak Swahili than Korean or Italian.

Read more: PRI

For the first time, Chinese poetry is being translated into Kiswahili

Jidi Majia, a writer from southwest China, once described himself as a Chinese poet with an “African complex.” He emulated writers like Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor, Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, or Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, cheered for the end of apartheid in South Africa, and cried when Nelson Mandela died.

“I embarked upon my literary career with what I would call African complex, in my unconscious, that is, an instinctive aping of African writing techniques and styles, fed [by] a deep love of African cultures and peoples,” he said in a 2014 acceptance speech given in absentia for a humanitarian award from the South African foundation Mkiva.

Now, the poetry of a man who has never set foot on the African continent can be read in Kiswahili, in a new collection called Maneno Ya Moto Kutoka China or Words of Fire from China. The publisher, Twaweza Communications, says it is the first time a creative work of Chinese literature has been translated into the lingua franca of Kenya, Tanzania, and much of southeast Africa.

Read more: Quartz

Revitalizing endangered languages for future generations

Linguist Bonny Sands speaks in clicks. The adjunct faculty member is an expert on click languages, and supports language revitalization efforts through documentation.

Sands began studying click languages in 1988 as a graduate student at UCLA. When fellow linguists have questions about click languages, she gets an email.

But the entire business of language revitalization itself, is endangered, in part because of the difficulty in finding sufficient long-term funding to study the languages: Sands described it as a crisis.

“There are about 2,000 languages in Africa and of those, everybody agrees that about 300 are seriously endangered,” Sands said. “But I argue that the actual number of languages that are in trouble is closer to 600.”

Sands’ work will be published in the book, Africa’s Endangered Languages, Documentary and Theoretical Approaches, which is in production will be released next year by Oxford University Press.

Revitalizing languages is an important step toward preserving the heritage in countries including Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and others.

Read more: Phys.org

Online Dictionary Helps Nigerians Decode Their Names

The names given to a child by southwest Nigeria’s Yoruba people come with a certain meaning, which may be related to something like the time of year or to the circumstances of the child’s birth.

While linguist Kola Tubosun knows the meaning of his name, many of the other Yorubas he has met do not. So, he decided to do something about it.

Launched earlier this month, YorubaName.com is an online dictionary of traditional Yoruba names, aimed at Yoruba people who might have forgotten their name’s meaning or never learned it in the first place.

“The whole idea is to provide a central place where people can find all, hopefully all of the Yoruba names, be able to find its meaning,” said Dadepo Aderemi, the site’s head developer.

Read more: Voice of America

C’est impossible! French set to be the world’s most commonly spoken language by 2050

They’ve been defensive for decades in preserving the purity of the language of love from the threat of globalisation.

But now it seems all will have paid off for the French, whose language is set to become the world’s most spoken language by 2050, thanks to growing francophone populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

While most eager English-language parents are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies in a bid to ensure their children ahead of the game, a study by investment bank Natixis, says we should get back to the classroom and brush up on our French.

Read more: Daily Mail

A new chapter in Nigeria’s literature

“When I started writing in the early 2000s, there were very few other young Nigerians being published internationally — Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Chris Abani and Sefi Atta,” recalls Chika Unigwe, the Nigerian novelist. “Farafina was one of the few local publishers dedicated to quality fiction, and you could count the number of literary events on the fingers of one hand.”

A little over a decade later, much has changed. Publishers such as Cassava Republic and Parrésia are at the centre of a thriving literary scene. Book festivals, once restricted to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, are springing up in Abeokuta (the Ake Book and Arts Festival) and the oil industry hub of Port Harcourt (the Garden City Literary Festival) — the city notorious a decade ago for kidnappings of expatriate oil workers. In April, Port Harcourt ended its year-long stint as Unesco’s World Book Capital.

Read more: Financial Times