Sunday, June 26, 2011

A response to the article “Kiswahili Tech Projects are falling apart, why?”

I have enjoyed reading Kachwanya’s 2009 article, “Kiswahili Tech Projects are falling apart, why?” because I think it addresses an important subject. The article makes it evident that there are different levels of language use and that, while a given population may find it natural to speak in one language, the same population might prefer to use technology or engage in professional writing/ speech in a completely different language. As contradictory as such a situation might seem, it reflects the linguistic complexity of our everyday experiences. I must mention that the article does have one significant shortfall. In my opinion, an article that makes claims this strong about Kiswahili technology projects should be based on more than the writer’s personal experience. Frankly, I was expecting the writer to have interviewed a wide range of people outside his/ her immediate circle and to have actual data from Facebook, Microsoft and others about the long-term success of their Kiswahili projects.

Having read the article, I’m interested in understanding, first of all, whether the alleged unpopularity of the Kiswahili versions of Facebook, Microsoft Office etc. among Kenyans constitutes a problem. I personally think that it is not a crisis. I imagine the popularity and accessibility of these forms will increase over time. Let’s give the average user of technology time to get used to the features of the Kiswahili version of Facebook. Let’s also give the translators time to expand and stabilize the Kiswahili lexicon as they adapt various words for use in technological contexts. These are processes that take time and they will (hopefully) catch on.
I also think that there is a significant difference between the use of language in everyday conversational contexts and the use of the same language in technical contexts. I would be more concerned if the average Kenyan was unable to use Kiswahili in the former context than in the latter one. It is a bit premature to sound the alarm bells over the latter. Kenya is not Tanzania. The two nations have adopted English and Swahili in different ways for different reasons. So one cannot properly compare the two without examining why they adopted their specific language policies and why they continue to reinforce those policies. Tanzania’s language policy may have done wonders for Tanzanian nationalism and for the development of Kiswahili as a regional lingua franca, but there are also associated negative implications for the average Tanzanian when it comes to transitioning from the use of Kiswahili at the lower levels of education to the use of English at the higher levels. There are also implications for international trade.
When the writer discusses his/ her inability to understand Dr. Naomi Shaban’s contributions to a parliamentary debate without consulting a dictionary, he/ she illustrates his/ her own inability to understand the language well when the speaker employs specialized vocabulary. That is only natural. I admit to not understanding half of what goes on in the US Congress even though I speak English pretty well. So, like I said before, the writer’s dilemma is not a crisis. I imagine that if he/ she wants to address that issue, he/ she is already on the right track: reading and listening to technical Kiswahili and consulting a dictionary when confused will help significantly. That is part of the learning process and it is commendable too.

Creative Commons License
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment