Say yes to local languages

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February 21st is the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day. The world should thank Bangladesh for this vital spotlight. (See why). This year’s UN theme is “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development”. You’ll find more info here. For the Syngenta Foundation, local languages play a crucial role in agriculture, and in farmer education. For example in Kenya. 

‘Agri-Culture’ is closely linked to many other forms of culture. Language is among the most fundamental. In his book Elefanten in der Sahara, the late Swiss missionary Al Imfeld devoted a chapter specifically to “Farmers who’ve lost their tongue?” A farmer, he said, “has his language just like city-dwellers; language changes, depending on whether one farms livestock or plants. Africa’s languages […] arose and survived in ways shaped by climate and soil, by land use and division. […] Their words emerged from daily life in each specific form of farming and system of barter.”  

“Languages are always tied to Agri-Culture”, noted Imfeld. He saw linguistics as inseparably twinned with agricultural history, because “apart from sexuality, humans’ two greatest concerns are food and drink, and these are both connected to agriculture” – or as Imfeld more precisely said, to “agricultures”, in the plural. He quoted a Cameroon saying that “language comes from yams, not from heaven”. The region has some 13,000 types of yam – and in other areas where this crop does not grow, there is no word for it. Kikuyu in Kenya is a ‘yamless’ language, for example. In Côte d’Ivoire, French lacks many of the indigenous Baoulé words used to describe the texture, quality, and handling of yams. 

According to Imfeld, many African languages perish because their agricultural roots also die: “If I chop down the last tree of a species, we only need its name for as long as we can remember the tree.” Word loss, Imfeld noted, is particularly acute in societies with unwritten languages, or a primarily oral culture and low literacy rates. Traditionally, therefore, African languages have been heavily at risk.

A further reason that African idioms, like many others worldwide, are at such risk is the global and local strength of former colonial languages. In her autobiography, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangarai Maathai from Kenya acknowledges the sometimes overwhelming position there of English. In the early days of her Green Belt Movement’s tree-planting groups, “we knew the government would want to see proper records, and that keeping them in English would confer more legitimacy and transparency.” 

Nurturing trees and languages 

Maathai nonetheless “made it a policy that the tree nursery attendants speak and write in their local language as well as in English”. Use of the vernacular was most unusual for grassroots organizations in 1980’s Kenya. Maathai considers it vital for her movement’s success. “Our insistence on people being able to speak their local languages was revolutionary”, she continues. “[M]any people in rural areas, especially those who have had no schooling, do not fully comprehend English or Kiswahili, and their lack of fluency causes them to be shy in meetings. I wanted to hear what they had to say, and to know that they could fully understand us.” Where necessary, the Green Belt Movement organized translators. 

If local African languages are so crucial for development and farming but seem at such a disadvantage, what can be done to shift the balance? How can African smallholders’ minority languages turn into material advantages? One plausible option would be for these languages, wherever suitable, to be the idioms of agricultural extension. As local languages provide the full range of locally relevant agricultural vocabulary, their use enables very precise advice tailored to farmers’ real situations. This must surely be better than generalizations from urban textbooks, typically written in a majority language of national instruction. 

In addition, messages conveyed in ‘the language of the heart’ probably have more impact than those in one learned many years ago at school. That’s certainly our Foundation’s experience – for example in Peru. Linking Andean vegetable growers with lucrative but highly demanding major customers, we noted the great value of agronomy training run by our NGO partner in the Indio language Quechua. The ‘school’ language, Spanish, simply wouldn’t have cut it. (Here’s more.)  And cultural closeness to farmers is why, for now, 35 years, our Foundation has always tried to recruit local employees and work with local partners. 

Other professionals also emphasize the value of local languages in extension – for example via radio. Kevin Perkins, Executive Director of Farm Radio International says: “One of the strengths of community stations is that they broadcast in the ‘vernacular’ (grandmother’s language). This is especially, though not only, helpful to female farmers.” He adds: “[B]roadcasting in the local vernacular means that farmers who speak those languages at home – especially female farmers – will treasure those radio programs above others.”

Appreciation and enjoyment also translate into beneficial changes in behavior. A 2003 study in Ghana, for example, found that: “Understanding of soil and water conservation practices, agroforestry and organic manuring seem to have improved after listening to the programme.” The broadcast increased farmers’ resolve to reduce bush-burning […]. Use of local language was “very important” and “made the programme immediately acceptable”. Our impact studies with radio listeners in Kenya reinforce this view. 

Listeners like it local 

Radio station representatives strongly agree. (Translated) comments we've received from them include the following: 
•    “Professional advice must be given in the local language because people understand that better than their other languages. That is particularly important for illiterate listeners.” 
•    “The first local language is important in that the farmers will understand better because some agricultural words and terminologies are not well understood by many.” 
•    “It’s better to give some messages in a local language. With our largely illiterate farmers, translations can create confusion.”
•    “There are very many farmers who do not even understand the ‘national’ language. So how do you reach them if you do not broadcast in the language they understand?”
•    “Many farmers understand issues in their own local languages, and also it is easier to deal with specific issues since a message for a wider area will be generalized. […] The local language is the best! We have done well with vernacular languages.” 
•    “The local idiom is always better received than one that, although it is a majority language, always seems like somebody else’s, a foreign tongue. That one will always be viewed with caution.”
•    “Not all people understand the major languages. People take time to listen to the radio when they hear their own voices over the radio in their own language.” 

“People who say that farmers will pay more attention to advise in the main national languages are simply wrong”, comments a broadcaster from Côte d’Ivoire. “This notion ignores countries’ social structures. A so-called national language is sometimes spoken by 75% of the population. Where does that leave the other 25%? If you want to work seriously, farmers have to receive advice in their local language.” 

Local languages’ central rôle in facilitating changes – in this case to farm practices – is often overlooked. (Major corporations sometimes make the same mistake in their change management programs!) The uninitiated or uninterested tend instead to think of vernaculars as old-fashioned and conservative. But to answer the question of our title: The language of change is the language of personal choice! 

There are, of course, many other good reasons for supporting local languages. And for using radio in agricultural extension. But for International Mother Language Day, let’s leave it there for the moment. If you’d like to know more about our work with local radio stations in Kenya, take a look here and meet our partners. And if you’d like to discuss the topic, why not contact us? References for the quotes, etc. above are also available on request.

You don’t have to write in English, by the way: Around the Foundation, our employees have about 20 mother languages.