Should there be an African day of languages?

Happy European day of languages everyone!

Where I live now, in Finland, languages are taken very seriously. But even in a country that sees itself as multilingual, not all languages have equal status. Many languages have been minoritised, that is, they have been given lesser status in a nation state based on regulated domains for the languages spoken on its territory. Such policies often don’t leave much room for smaller languages, and they also create a particular image of a language – it needs to have all the insignia of languagehood that the “big” languages have: a standard (and written!) variety, use in all domains of public life, a body of written literature…

In fact, most European nation states are built on the premise of linguistic homogenisation, relying on the eradication of as much internal diversity as possible in order to create the illusion of unity without difference. It is against a backdrop of linguistic discrimination that the European day of languages is positioned, Its aims are highly laudable, but as with many celebratory days, it is born out of the dire need to valorise something that is threatened, marginalised, and underrepresented. Once a monolingual mindset has taken root in a society, it becomes very costly to be multilingual, since the image to be copied is the one of the dominant languages.

Africa, on the other hand, boasts continuing linguistic diversity. Its languages, though (or perhaps because!) not supported by the existing language policies, continue to thrive in many cases, though not in the pristine forms imagined for them first by colonial administrators and then by prescriptively minded and purist language planners. So does Africa need a day of languages? And if so, what could such a day look like?

In my mind, an African day of languages would celebrate what makes African languages and their use special and resilient. Longlasting grassroots literacies that allow for versatile and adaptive multilingualism in the face of scarce resources, be it in the Arabic or Latin script or in any of the many inventive writing systems coming from the African continent. Adaptive multilingualism that turns many of the continent’s inhabitants into life-long language learners and teachers. A resilience that allows for the appropriation of languages of colonial origin (which continue to serve as instruments of exlusion in their standard forms) into various registers that reclaim and africanise them, be it through particular styles or openly mixed registers. Language use that thus continues to defy the binary contrast between colonial and indigenous languages. Unity in difference, through widely shared practices of exchange and interaction. Mostly, these are achievements that are frowned upon by those who see languages in the Western image, as a standardised code with a prescriptive writing culture and seemingly clear boundaries. But they are what makes diversity possible.

So, perhaps we do need an African day of languages to make other language visions beyond the shadow of European ideas of language more visible. and recognise them as achievements rather than as deficits. These visions could offer precious lessons to European nation states that are, after centuries of denying and eradicating linguistic diversity, starting to see it as an asset again.

Phone swap? – Language swap!

It’s women’s day, and I’m not in the mood for work. So how to write a blog post that celebrates African women and is fun, to put all of us in a more celebratory mood? As ever so often, two separate strands of thought suddenly collided with a spark and gave me the idea for this post. Since writing on euphemism in Songhay I’ve been thinking about the language(s) used in African films, because the article I discuss in that post is based on the analysis of a film in standard Songhay. I had also just seen the trailer for Yao, a film featuring Oumary Sy and Fatoumata Diawara, on the visit of a migrant to Senegal. I was intrigued that the trailer was entirely in rather metropolitan French, despite being located in northern Senegal where Wolof, Pular, and Senegalese French are spoken and often mixed.

For today, I also wanted to feature a female African researcher on the blog, since women are still very underrepresented in African studies and African linguistics, and black women even more so. And suddenly, I had my topic. the US-based literature scholar Moradewun Adejunmobi is a black woman whose work I admire. And she also happens to write extensively on multilingualism, popular culture and African film, in particular Nollywood movies.

Her work indeed answered many of my questions. I learned that most Nollywood movies are monolingual, either featuring English or one of Nigeria’s other largest languages, creating “a fictional universe where one language suffices for communication, and code-switching is rare or completely absent” (Adejunmobi 2018: 188). Such monolingual films are shot in Nigeria’s big three, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, but also in Edo, Efik and some other languages with larger speaker bases.

Films that feature several Nigerian languages, aiming at representing their characters’ complex and multilingual sociocultural realities, are rare, but Phone Swap is one of them. Have a look at the trailer and multilingualism will be in your ear, though not in your eye, as the trailer’s subtitles only translate languages other than English without identifying the languages they can’t understand for an audience not sharing the same multilingual repertoire.

Read more on the different strategies Nollywood movies adopt through choice of language(s) in sound and subtitles, what motivates them, and how different forms of addressivity – multilingual and monolingual address – in either or both modalities position these films on national and global markets here:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun. 2018. “Translation and the Multilingual Film Text: Defining a Public.” In Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture. Ed. Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz. London: Routledge, 188-205

Writing repertoires

People in Casamance in Senegal are famously multilingual. But what works seamlessly in the oral modality is quickly turned into a burden in writing though.

If literacy is taught based on a strict norm, a language-based standard, writing more than one language requires much effort, since the conventions of several orthographies need to be taught, learned, memorised and put to the task. Most literacy campaigns in national languages therefore introduce literacy in only one language in any given area.

But what to do if your village hosts speakers of many different languages, such as Agnack, where speakers of Baïnounk Gujaher, Mandinka, various Joola languages, Mankanya, Kriol, and other languages cohabit? What if you want to write a note to a neighbour with whom you communicate in Mandinka but also want to keep a diary in Baïnounk Gujaher and leave a comment on Facebook of a friend in Dakar in Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca?

Driven by this question, a team of local transcribers, teachers, and linguists came up with the LILIEMA method, which introduces literacy based on entire repertoires rather than basing its teaching on one language only. Using the official alphabet of Senegalese languages, writers learn sound-letter associations based on words from the entire repertoire in the classroom and are thus enabled to express themselves in any language they wish in writing.

You can see LILIEMA in use on the Donkosira blog, where inhabitants of Agnack blog on aspects of local knowledge they want to share, and were they regularly use several languages to reach a wide audience with their posts. Have a look at this post for instance, on rice cultivation, which features Baïnounk Gujaher and Mandinka in addition to French, which is the only language written in its own and distinct orthography, since its is firmly inscribed into a European standard culture. Other posts feature Kriol or Joola Fogny, liberating writers and readers from impossible choices and setting them free to express themselves in writing as flexibly as they would in speaking.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

Counting at the Crossroads

The Crossroads I’m going to write about today is a real junction situated on the road from Ziguinchor, the capital of Lower Casamance in Senegal to Cape Skirring on the Atlantic coast. Located at this junction are two villages, Brin (Jire in its local language) and Djibonker (alias Jibëeher). Only a couple of hundred meters apart from each other, each of these villages is nominally associated with a different language. At the Crossroads, the road divides and swerves north towards a peninsula, the realm of the kingdom of Mov Ëvi and home base to yet a different language, Banjal or Eegimaa, that in turn is further locally differentiated.

Villages and languages at the Crossroads

The villages are associated with particular languages because these are the languages of their founders, but people have been mobile and mixing with each other since the beginning of time. What is the impact of prolonged multilingualism, in languages that are also closely (Banjal and Kujireray) or remotely (those two and Gubëeher) genealogically related? The general design principles and divisions of labour for different counting systems appear to be identical: in all three languages, numbers up to twenty are based on the human body, with the basic units ‘five’ and ‘ten’ related to hands, ‘fifteen’ expressed through an added foot, and ‘twenty’ designated with a word that means ‘king’ – standing in for a person and all the digits of their hand and feet. From twenty to hundred, everything is organised around hand, feet and multiples of kings. Hundreds are counted decimally (with multiples of ten). Phone numbers are counted in French, and money, as we have seen in an earlier post, has its own counting system based on five as the basic unit, with larger sums are given in French.

Too complicated already? Then consider the more fine-grained nuances of the system: in Gubëeher, the word for ‘five’ is cilax ‘hand’. 200 meters down the road, in Brin, ‘five’ is not expressed with the word for hand, but with the word for ‘fist’, futox, which is also the form used in Banjal. But 10 is based on the word for ‘hands’ in all three languages – halax in Gubëeher, kuñen in Kujireray, and guñen in Banjal.

All three ‘Crossroads’ languages share the source language for ‘hundred’: teemeer (Gubëeher) or eteemir (Kujireary and Banjal), borrowed from Wolof. 1,000 is expressed with a word originating in Mandinka, another lingua franca of the wider area: it is wuli in Gubëeher, and euli/éuli in Kujireray and Banjal.

It’s not just languages that are located at a junction. Their speakers interact at the local level, but preserve tiny meaningful differences in language, despite high levels of multilingualism. Where they systematically converse with speakers of other languages, for instance in trade, this is reflected in the adoption of numerals form the languages used for these purposes – Wolof, Mandinka, French… After all, why limit yourself to one language, when you can tap into so many different concepts and notions, tailored to different needs?

The numeral systems of Gubëeher, Kujireray and Banjal are discussed in the following works:

Cobbinah, Alexander Yao (2013) Nominal classification and verbal nouns in Baïnounk Gubëeher. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London

Sagna, Serge. 2008) Formal and semantic properties of the Gújjolaay Eegimaa (a.k.a Banjal) nominal classification system.
PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Watson, Rachel. 2015. Kujireray: morphosyntax, noun classification and verbal nouns. PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Languaging in speech and signs

My third post on African languages in the UNESCO year of indigenous languages looks at a particular type of multilingualism that is extremely rare in the West. All over Africa (and in other areas of the world where Deaf people do not receive specialized education separate from hearing learners), hearing and Deaf people form speech communities where hearing and non-hearing members share sign languages. These sign languages are often specific to particular locations and not related to the widely distributed national and international sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL). In contrast to most Western settings, where education is focussed on acquiring spoken and written language, and where communication in sign languages is mainly limited to Deaf people and their families, Deaf people in these settings are fully integrated into their local communities. Their hearing members are often multilingual in several spoken languages but also master and pass on the sign language. The extent to which sign languages in these settings are conventionalized and in which communicative contexts they are used depends on the size and time-depth of the community. You can read an account of village sign communities in rural Mali here:

Nyst, Victoria, Sylla, Kara & Magassouba, Moustapha (2012) Deaf signers in Douentza, a rural area in Mali In: Zeshan, Ulrike and Connie de Vos eds. 2012. Sign languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

If you want to have a look at how sign language is shared with hearers in a setting where it is not highly conventionalized (because there is only a single Deaf person), have a look at this blogpost and video situated in the village Djibonker in Senegal by Mia Weidl and Andrés Carvajal.