KPAAM-CAM – Crossroads Workshop,  6th – 10th June 2016, by Pierpaolo di Carlo*

* With contributions by Alexander Cobbinah, Abbie Hantgan, Samantha Goodchild, Friederike Lüpke, Rachel Watson and Miriam Weidl

In September 2015, at the end of the M4 conference, team members of the Crossroads project and of the KPAAM-CAM project (Key Pluridisciplinary Advances on African Multilingualism – CAMeroon, based at the University at Buffalo, SUNY), had a fruitful meeting and realized it would be important to spend some time together in a joint workshop to share our experiences and develop common research tools and methods. We dreamed of a serendipitous event in a quiet town of rural Italy, which unfortunately proved impossible to organize.

Nonetheless, we maintained our motivation and managed to hold our first joint KPAAM-CAM – Crossroads workshop at SOAS, University of London, at the beginning of June 2016, and it was undoubtedly a success from which all of us benefitted and are still benefitting. Not only did we start the week with an exciting event, witnessing the centenary celebrations of SOAS. We used our time for project internal and open discussions, gave and heard talks on topics concerning ongoing research, corpus design, upcoming problems, the definition of terms and concepts, and ended the workshop at Queen Mary,  University of London, participating in the Jenny Cheshire Lecture with an inspiring talk from Lesley Milroy.


IMG_0010As a whole, the nineteen invited participants represented six universities (SOAS, University at Buffalo SUNY, University of Yaounde 1, University of Buea, Université Cheikh Anta Diop Dakar, University of Frankfurt) and eleven countries (Austria, Benin, Cameroon, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Germany, Italy, Senegal, the US, and the UK). We met every day from 10am to 5pm, for four days, to talk about both individual as well as team-based research projects; all variously connected with individual multilingualism in lesser-studied areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The programme of the workshop part open to the public is available here.


Put in this way, we realize it may not sound too exciting for the non-specialist. What has happened, in fact, is that scholars and students coming from different disciplines (linguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, information technology) with diverse backgrounds have tried to create an environment that could suit a basic, yet often neglected need of researchers: to discuss difficulties, challenges, and failures. It is not that common to find two research teams available to discuss openly about their difficulties, but in some sense we also managed to do that. Of course, being in a quiet town in rural Italy would have further facilitated the process somewhat…

One phenomenon, different approaches

We all had one main reason to meet: discuss about how we are dealing with multilingualism in areas such as Casamance, in southern Senegal,  and the Cameroonian Grassfields. Friederike Lüpke discussed these two settings in the wider context of small-scale multilingualism worldwide in her talk. The two teams have so far adopted two substantially different perspectives:  the Crossroads team focusses more on topics related to language contact and the links between multilinguals’ ideologies and repertoires and actual language use, while KPAAM-CAM is more concentrated on the possible cultural matrixes of language ideologies co-occurring with widespread and intense multilingualism. This complementarity was the essential reason why we thought we would benefit from a joint workshop.

Involvement of local communities in and around target areas

One of the first topics we discussed concerns the ways in which the two teams have collaborated with local communities in and around their respective research targets. We identified three levels of collaboration: institutional, operational, and target communities. KPAAM-CAM crucially relies on Cameroonian universities (Yaounde 1, Buea, and CATUC Bamenda), both at an institutional and operational level (currently involving 10 MA and PhD students). The Crossroads team collaborates with Cheik-Anta Diop University in Dakar and has three Senegalese PhD students and co-ordinator Alain-Christian Bassène on the team.

For what concerns relationships with target speaker communities, all of us shared a preoccupation: that of having broader positive impact. For example, many Crossroads team members have been involved in teaching English classes, both to adults and children, and boxing classes, setting up small gym areas in Brin and Djibonker. KPAAM-CAM has initiated a project called Pig for Pikin (which, in Cameroonian Pidgin English means “Pigs for Children”), where people have been trained in pig rearing in order to raise money which will be used for funding teachers in local schools in the area.



Stimuli for reappraisal of some widely held assumptions

Languages as categories (prototype theory)

In this session we discussed the tension between the ‘translanguaging’ discourse that is Crossroads prototype RW-screenshotpopular in sociolinguistic studies on multilingualism of this type, and the need for descriptions of individual languages. In her talkRachel Watson proposed that prototype theory can serve as a useful way to resolve this conflict. Languages can be conceived of as clusters of features which are more or less prototypical, which speakers may select according to different social and cultural cues.


Visible and invisible social networks


DiCarloNeba-screenshotOne of the key pluridisciplinary advances of KPAAM-CAM is that of showing how some cultural features connected with the spiritual sphere of one’s existence – found in the Cameroonian Grassfields but not limited to this area – do in fact condition one’s linguistic behavior. For instance, Pierpaolo Di Carlo and Ayu’nwi N. Neba (University of Buea) have proposed an overview of Bafut language ecology and ideology pointing to the need to widen our perspective on speaker communities crucially including also invisible agents (i.e. the ancestors and other spirits). This could nicely implement current social network analysis as it is being applied by Klaus Beyer, who illustrated his ongoing project in Ngaoundere and also coordinated a hands-on session on how to practically implement social network analysis. Along the same lines, also Prof. Philippe Mutaka (University of Yaounde 1) in his paper suggested to find ways to deal with emically relevant discourse genres in sociolinguistic research focused on African societies, crucially including matters connected with the spiritual side of life.

Developing a shared workflow

Both Crossroads and KPAAM-CAM stem from previous language documentation projects and during the workshop the team shared ideas centering around best practice when collecting sociolinguistic data and worked together looking at sociolinguistic interview guides. One pertinent topic was how to maintain comparability of data across semi-structured interview situations. In response to this, and from the perspective of a longitudinal project that needs to ensure database consistency on a long term, KPAAM-CAM have worked with Ning Deng (PhD candidate in Computer Science and Engineering in Buffalo) to create a promising field data collection app, available on Android, which helpfully prompts users for required and desired data. For more information on the app please contact Ning at

Ideas for dissemination

Both teams are aware that what they are finding in the field has the potential to become a significant addition to linguists’ and sociolinguists’ epistemological repertoires. Hence comes the determination to join forces and prepare publications that could start disseminating our research outcomes. While there was not enough time to develop an agenda for joint publications, on the last day of the workshop we discussed about dissemination in African universities. We have brainstormed about online and offline tools, gamification and, more generally, about cultural differences that should be taken into account to increase the impact of our dissemination efforts.

Last but not least: naming “our multilingualism”

In the brainstorming session, there were many possible terms conceived to describe the multilingual situations that we work in (name slide to be inserted here). Why would we need a new name here? Simply put: the multilingualisms we are exposed to (which have much in common with similar situations in Amazonia and Melanesia) have a number of features that fundamentally keep them apart from the canonical understanding of multilingualism: i.e. urban, post-colonial, polyglossic and superdiverse.

Names for multilingualism

Many terms were discussed although wider issues were identified such as whether we wished for a term to describe the process of multilingual language use, the phenomenon in itself, an ontology of multilingualism or whether we wanted to privilege a term that maximized chances of being understood by a wider, less specialist audience. It was pointed out that speakers and contexts should have an important place in the terminology, both for what we do in our research and in how we name the phenomenon and differentiate it from other forms of multilingualism. We left the workshop agreeing that we engage in dynamic repertoire analysis, a term that captures the multitude of perspectives and disciplinary approaches we combine in different ways to describe the complex settings in which we work. Regarding a better label for the phenomenon we reseearch that also captures how speakers live it, we came up with the term “organic multilingualism” – a configuration that has grown without regulating top-down interventions in a particular ecological space and is adaptive to changing conditions in it. More to come on our new pet term soon – watch this space!

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