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

Everywhere and nowhere: Ajami writing

In African formal education systems, the Latin script dominates, with the exception of Arabic-writing North Africa and the Horn of Africa, writing in Ge’ez. In secular state schools, literacy is mainly taught in the ex-colonial languages, which all use Latin-based orthographies. But even schools that teach so-called “national languages” – indigenous languages that are officially recognised – teach these languages in the Latin alphabet. Outside of Arabic lessons, the Arabic script is nowhere to be seen in the formal education sector.

This insistence on the Latin script, which is often seen as a neutral, modern, choice, flies in the face of longstanding writing practices that have emerged all over Africa in areas in the sphere of influence of Islam. Just as the Latin script spread with Christianity and was adapted to write languages other than Latin originally in religious contexts, the Arabic script was extended to write in the languages of Islamic scholars. West Africans cultivated this type of literacy, called Ajami (from ‘Ajamiyy ‘stranger’ in Arabic) from the 13th century onward. All over Africa, writers engage(d) with the Qur’ān, writing in the margins of religious manuscripts, penning personal letters, religious prose and poetry, using the Arabic script for the writing of Fulfulde, Hausa, Mandinka, and many other languages. For some languages, this writing crystallised into language-focused literary traditions roughly from the 17th century onward. In others contexts it remains a fluid informal practice.

Important West African languages with Ajami writing traditions (Souag 2010: 1)

To this day, Ajami writing is an important form of literacy, especially in areas that ironically are regarded as hot spots of illiteracy in official literacy statistics. According to this logic, which ignores the many different types of
Qur’ānic schools, where Ajami writing is learned alongside writing and reading of Arabic by some of the students, somebody without literacy knowledge in the Latin script is illiterate. Not surprisingly, this lack of recognition often leads its practitioners to under-report Ajami skills or even hide them from authorities, because these eye Qur’ānic schools and the knowledge acquired there with suspicion. This is a real shame, since Ajami writing is a very ergonomic form of literacy for languages for which not many resources are available. Ajami extends the writing conventions of Arabic to any language and has intricate design principles adjust it to this purpose. One of these tweaks is a special character called by Souag 2010 the “Ajami diacritic” that signals to the reader that a sound must be pronounced differently from its Arabic counterpart. This flexibility has turned Ajami writing into a robust practice that doesn’t require much costly infrastructure, quite unlike standard writing of national languages in the Latin script. But standard language ideologies are so strong that with growing recognition of Ajami, calls for its standardisation are getting louder. Yet, just like many language ideas exported from Western monolingual standard cultures, such a move would rob Ajami of the very underpinning of its success in linguistically diverse and fluctuating societies.

Read more on the ingenious design principles of West African Ajami writing in this article:

Souag, Lameen (2010): Ajami in West Africa. In Afrikanistik Online 7, pp. 1–11

Counting money in West Africa

My post for today on African indigenous language is on counting. There is much to say on the many complex numeral systems found in West Africa, but one of their areal characteristics is all languages I’m aware of have two different ways of counting. I will get back to later to ‘normal’ numbers and the semantic underpinning of numbers used in counting objects. But today, I focus on the different way of counting money that is attested in these languages. When expressing a currency amount, the base number needs to be divided by five in order to arrive at the denominational amount. For instance, if I buy tomatoes for 100 Francs CFA, the price in Wolof, Bambara, Jalonke, Gujaher, etc., would be expressed with the number twenty. If the expression of the equivalent of 5,000 in monetary terms is desired, this would be the number 1,000. The probable reason for this dual system is that a five-francs piece has been the smallest coin in circulation since colonial times, so this became equivalent with one (unit of currency).

A 5 Franc coin from the West African Central Bank

Think about the mental gymnastics for learners of these languages which don’t have a different counting system for money! It makes haggling a high-risk enterprise… And it would be really interesting to study how the two systems are acquired by children, and whether they help their multiplication and division skills.

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.