Bringing together worlds apart: multilingualism in London and Agnack, by Friederike Lüpke

Small-scale multilingualism of the kind used in Agnack Grand, the tiny village in the Lower Casamance where I conduct my fieldwork, seems worlds away from the bustling, superdiverse city of London.  But actually, a closer look reveals that proportionally, Agnack Grand has more linguistic diversity than one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. London has been reported to host between 80 and 300 languages for a population of 8 million.  Agnack Grand counts a dozen languages for a population of 60.  That makes for a stunning degree of diversity for a very small and rural place tucked away between palm groves and marsh lands!

kanraxelpostermaster40Like London, Agnack Grand is nominally associated with only one language: Baïnounk Gujaher. But, unlike English, this language is not the official language of the country or province in which Agnack is located; nor is it the language taught in school or used in the media. Daily life in Agnack is very multilingual, and in a very different way from the way multilingualism works in London. London is home to many people who speak one, two, three or more different languages, but not all of them speak the same two, three, or more languages, and they don’t use these languages all the time and with everybody they encounter. In Agnack, everybody speaks at least six languages, and these languages are used all the time. Multilingualism in Agnack is a trait of individuals, and a deeply enshrined fact of social life.

Places like Agnack, of which there are many in rural Africa and worldwide, defy common conceptualisations of multilingualism (for instance, that it is widespread in urban areas and associated with growing mobility and migration in an era of globalization) and invite us to shed stereotypical expectations on what it means to speak several languages.  Places like Agnack also invite us to see multilingualism as a resource, not as a problem. It is a great opportunity for the team behind Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack to be able to bring multilingualism à la Agnack one more time to a London audience: we will screen this documentary at an event organized by Multilingual Capital at Queen Mary University of London on March 23 at 7pm. Registration is free on Eventbrite, so come along and immerse yourself in a visual celebration of small-scale multilingualism.


Crossing the ocean to meet with the Crossroads team, by Kristine Stenzel and Bruna Franchetto


Kris, Bruna, and Friederike in deep conversation

From November  28 to December 2, 2016, Kristine Stenzel and Bruna Franchetto, professors from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, traveled to London to meet with the Crossroads team and participate in the LDLT5 Pre-conference session on “Small-scale multilingualism and linguistic diversity”. The visit was funded by a British Academy International Partnership Grant awarded to Friederike Lüpke and Kristine Stenzel with the objective of bringing together researchers working in prominent small-scale multilingual situations in Senegal and Brazilian Amazonia for an initial exchange of ideas, experiences, and knowhow.

Ruth Singer, who visited the Crossroads project from September to December 2016, gives her presentation at the workshop on small-scale multilingualism.

Ruth Singer gives her presentation at the workshop on small-scale multilingualism.

The first days were dedicated to a series of informal meetings with Friederike, visiting scholar Ruth Singer (ANU and University of Melbourne) and Crossroads team members Rachel Watson, Abbie Hantgan, Alexander Cobbinah, Samantha Goodchild, and Miriam Weidl, who shared valuable information related to data management, methodological issues, and interesting research questions under investigation. Bruna, a specialist in the Upper Xingu region in central Brazil, and Kristine, whose research is in the Upper Rio Negro region of northwest Amazonia, found many fascinating parallels between multilingual regions of Brazil and Senegal, but also noted significant and fascinating differences. ‘Discovery’ was the hallmark of the pre-conference session as well, when participants heard more about the Amazonian and West African systems, as well as about multilingual contexts in the Guianas, China, Australia, and in the classic literary traditions of northern India.

Kristine and Bruna look forward to hosting Friederike and Rachel, as well as scholars from institutions throughout Brazil and students involved in indigenous language research, at a five-day follow-up workshop in Rio, August 21-25, 2017. This workshop will introduce West African multilingual systems to the local audience, provide the opportunity for cross-regional and cross-continental comparison, and set the stage for development of a typology of regional multilingual systems in Brazil.

Crossroads team members Alex, Friederike and Rachel in a lively discussion with workshop participant Bob Borges.

Crossroads team members Alex, Friederike and Rachel in a lively discussion with workshop participant Bob Borges.

Early Career Researchers to Brussels on 21-22 June 2016 (Post Brexit update)

Alex and Abbie, along with about 20 other London-based researchers, recently took part a working visit to Brussels with London Higher Education to explore resources for furthering funding in the EU through opportunities such as  Horizon 2020Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and the European Research Council. These grants provide substantial support to academics in various stages of their careers to collaborate with those within and outside academia in a range of disciplines and fields. The necessity to align the project goals with areas of interest and relevant to EU policy and goals was stressed.

The UK has an office in Brussels which is available to researchers at colleges and universities such as ours in London.  We were specifically encouraged to make contact with the representatives there, even before applying, in order to increase the chances of securing funding. The UKRO Portal: offers the following:

  • Tailored news articles and clear and accessible web pages on the latest in EU funding
  • Enquiry service: individual support through your dedicated European Advisor
  • Annual briefing visits: bespoke training for your institution
  • Meeting room: a venue in Brussels available for Britain-based academics for conferences and meetings

The next call for proposals relevant to early career researchers are the ERC Starting Grants with the next call opening up in July 2017.

For those with broader prospects, the Horizon 2020 program which seeks to alleviate some of the world’s most difficult problems and opens up major discoveries by the year 2020, is a way to partner with other institutions (not necessarily in academia) to create major changes.

We also were given a fascinating tour of EU Parliament where we saw some of the inner and networkings of Europe’s 751 elected representatives who are themselves represented through 24 official languages.

  • For more information contact:
  • Email:
  • Website:
  • Twitter: @LondonHigherEU
  • c/o London House
  • Rue du Trône 108
  • 1050 Brussels/Belgium
  • Tel: +32 (0)2 650 08 00

As the situation of the UK regarding EU infrastructure has radically changed since our visit (see Information on implications of referendum), we have received an update which we would also like to share. Yesterday, October 12, 2016, UKRO representative Blazej Thomas came to SOAS for a visit in which he stated the followingː


He and the other speakers present yesterday encouraged those who are interested in applying for EU funding not to hesitate based on rumors to the contrary and that the UKRO office is available for advice and assistance.

Kanraxël – The Confluence of Agnack presented at the AHRC Commons first national event, by Chouette Films

Throughout centuries and spanning across continents, midsummer has been steeped in mysticism, rituals and folklore. And on 21 June – Midsummer’s Eve – there was no doubt that the spirits of Casamance were among us as we at Chouette Films and the Crossroads Project were able to impart some of the wisdom of Casamance’s people to a wider audience.

On the day, Crossroads PhD students Samantha Goodchild and Miriam Weidl gave a talk at the Translanguaging Symposium at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. At the same time, Chouette Films held a presentation at the AHRC Commons’ first national event, Common Ground, at the University of York. The event’s aim was to establish a new forum where Arts and Humanities researchers from a range of subject areas and disciplines can collaborate with other colleagues. Participants from organisations across the UK ran the event, including universities and colleges, cultural organisations, museums and galleries – and the activities ranged from theatrical performances to debates and film screenings.

As winners of last year’s AHRC Film in Research award, we had the honour of screening our prize-winning film Kanraxël – The Confluence of Agnack at the event’s film zone. The film depicts daily multilingual practices in Agnack, one of the field sites of the Crossroads project, where Friederike Lüpke, whose research inspired the film, conducts her fieldwork.


Children in Agnack grow up with at least three language, and many of them master four or more by the time they start school.

Our producer and a PhD candidate at the London Film School/University of Exeter, Anna Sowa’s presentation on ‘Indigenous multilingualism in research and teaching’ explored the relationship between research, methodology and the filmmaking process. Dr Ian McDonald, the event’s film zone leader, commented: “Anna’s presentation highlighted the need for respect and a strong ethical dimension to academic research and film production in developing countries. Anna mentioned that her team had donated their AHRC award to the villagers of Casamance as a gift and as recognition of the villagers’ status as, in effect, co-producers of the film. The presentation raised pertinent issues as we seek to raise the profile of filmmaking as practice-led research in the Academy. In bringing together grounded theory and method with a beautiful cinematic treatment of the anthropological film genre, the presentation struck the right mood and balance that set up the day to come.”

Kanraxël was well received by the audience, and after the screening, several important questions were raised: can a film be used as a tool for social change? Can a film make an impact, a tangible difference? These are especially timely questions now, amidst discussions on growing multiculturalism and in times of political uncertainty. Perhaps the people of Casamance could teach us a thing or two about tolerance and diversity…?


And what better time to start unravelling some of these questions than now: a few months ago, we sent an application to the SOAS Impact Fund to develop a set of online teaching resources and impact activities around the film. Yet again, it seems that the spirits of Casamance were on our side, as our application was approved and we are currently developing teaching materials aimed at university students and secondary school pupils. Our goal is to draw attention to the multilingual richness of the continent. We also want students from diverse backgrounds to discover connections to their own language practices – and embrace the different languages they might have grown up with. Above all, we want to highlight the richness and many benefits associated with multilingualism and multiculturalism. The new and exciting website,, will be launched in September.


The poster for the film shows the confluence (Kanraẍel in the patrimonial language of Agnack) of two rivers that offers the beautiful metaphor that we extended to the effortless way in which people meet and mix in Casamance.


Although we are not claiming to be able to change the world, we believe that films like Kanraxël, along with the materials available the upcoming website, can equip audiences to rethink the ways in which multilingualism and multiculturalism are conceptualised. As Samm Haillay, a senior film producer and presenter at the AHRC Commons event, said, “An artist’s job is not to try and answer the huge questions, but to pose them in a way that engages those who are watching. The key is to get the audience to consider these questions, to look at their life and attempt to find their own meanings.”


Watch this space for the big launch of the new Kanraxël website this autumn. For a taster, watch this clip showing one of the protagonists and giving insight into often overlooked women’s trajectories, identities and language use here.

You can follow the film’s success and join the conversation on diversity and multilingualism on Twitter and Facebook using #KANRAXEL

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!

Crossroads at the Translanguaging Symposium

Samantha Goodchild and Miriam Weidl (Crossroads PhD students) gave a talk at the Translanguaging Symposium at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. They presented theira talk entitled ‘Translanguaging practices in the Casamance, Senegal’ on Tuesday 21st June at 2.35pm (local time). You can watch their talk as the symposium is streamed at:—68QjQ/live. The programme for the event is available here.  Goodchild_Weidl_translanguaging presentation

The diversity of diverse, by Friederike Lüpke

The May 11 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine reports the recent discovery that the Natives of central Massachusetts spoke five language rather than only Loup, as had been assumed till now. Smithsonian curator emeritus and senior linguist Ives Goddard is quoted with the comment: “It’s like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table.” It is odd that Europe is the continent invoked as exemplar for multilingualism, when it is one of the continents where diversity has been radically diminished over the past centuries, and where attitudes to multilingualism are far from being generally positive. Other parts of the world have maintained a indigenous multilingualism to a much higher degree.  Among them are large parts of the Lower Casamance at the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa and the Grassfields in Northwestern Cameroon. These areas are among the most multilingual regions in the world, with patterns of multilingualism that predate the colonization and spread of European languages and emergence of Pidgin and Creole languages in them. So maybe one day the knowledge of these settings will be so commonplace that  the mention of multilingualism would evoke different images and spur remarks such as”it’s like some Casamance villages where you can’t utter ten sentences without using at least four languages” or  “she’s as multilingual as an inhabitant of the Lower Fungom area – by the age of six, she spoke six languages”.

For now, this is just a dream. Detailed (socio)linguistic research on these and  many other multilingual settings that can be described by terms such as “rural”, “traditional”, “egalitarian”, “non-polyglossic”, “balanced” or “indigenous” is only just beginning, and the knowledge of these settings confined to a circle of specialists and far from being in the public imagination. Engaging in exchanges with other scholars currently involved in research on these situations therefore is a great chance for us to develop new perspectives, to learn new methods and adapt existing methods to our settings, to chart commonalities and differences between in the ways in which language is used and conceptualised in other corners of the world, and to raise awareness of its distinct features. First comparisons have already revealed that diversity comes in many different shapes!

Last week, we were happy to have a chat with Dineke Schokkin, a member of the ARC Laureate project ‘Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’, led by Nick Evans, and we’re delighted that Wellsprings PostDoc Ruth Singer, whose research investigates small-scale multilingualism in Northern Arnhem land, Australia, will visit SOAS and the Crossroads project from September to December 2016. In June 2016, we will have another great opportunity for collaboration: members of our sister project KPAAM-CAM on rural multilingualism in Northwestern Cameroon, led by Jeff Good, will visit us for a joint workshop at SOAS. We have decided to make three mornings of our two-project summit open. If you can, please come and attend the talks given by members of and advisors of both projects. The detailed programme for the open parts on June 7 to 9 2016 can be found here.  You might find that your metaphors of multilingualism will become more diverse as a result…

A memorable last service, by Alexander Cobbinah

On Saturday the 2 April three of our London team members (myself, Miriam Weidl and Rachel Watson) had the honour of assisting a very special occasion – special both for personal reasons as well as concerning our project related activities. That event was the anniversary of Edouard Bacote Sagna’s funeral (messe anniversaire in French, ëriibeŋ in Gubëeher and bucigo in Joola Banjaland Kujireray). Edouard Sagna, who had very suddenly passed away in April 2015, is grieved by his many children and all of Djibonker and beyond, where he was engaged in numerous political, economic and social activities beneficial for the whole village.


He was also the first point of contact for me in 2009 when I first came to Djibonker to do research for my doctoral dissertation, and has not only welcomed me into his house and family but also assisted and supported me in his research as he has opened doors and worked miracles for all previous and current team members who have since come to research and spend part of their lives in Casamance. Edouard was deeply interested in the local culture and languages and the research projects and has participated in many of our research related activities by organising and coordinating events and being founder and part of a dictionary committee for Baïnounk Gubëeher.

His great personality and his wide popularity was reflected by the enormous numbers of family members and guests who came from all parts of Casamance and Senegal to remember him. Funny and serious episodes were reminisced and recounted in all languages of Casamance such as Bayot, Portuguese Creole, French, Wolof, and all the Joola languages between Diembereng and Diouloulou. This showed us once again how deeply the communities living in Casamance are intertwined through family ties and social bonds. On Saturday the main day of the ceremony the closer (!) circle of about 50 members of the family and friends who had stayed at the family house in Djibonker preparing the festivities, was joined by hundreds of guests pouring in by the busloads in their Sunday’s best. After having attended a church service dedicated to Edouard Sagna and a visit of his grave, the crowd moved to the house where an army of cooks prepared delicious food for everyone, and palm wine and other drinks were served throughout the day, while people sat and chatted.

As a contribution to Edouard’s memory from the part of the Crossroads project Mia and Alex chose images and video-footage and cut it into a half hour memorial film, bringing Edouard Sagna briefly back to life projected onto a white bedsheet attached to the side wall of the house he built and in which he used to live. Once more he was joking, dancing and pouring out words of wisdom in a manner deeply familiar to everyone who knew him, making them laugh and cry at the same time. But now it was time to let go of him as the anniversary of his funeral marks the end of the grieving period,  – to join the ancestors in the world beyond or to proceed to some form of Christian afterlife depending on what one prefers to believe. The personal belongings of the deceased are distributed among the family and his room becomes available again for occupation. He will be fondly remembered by his family and his friends  (and most certainly remembered by those foolish enough to make themselves his enemies). They have contributed all their workforce and resources to give their father, uncle, friend a dignified farewell he couldn’t have been more proud of.


Edouard Sagna and his late wife Martine Biagui in 2010

Text and photos by Alexander Cobbinah


Maxime – languaging without boundaries, by Miriam Weidl

Living and working with people for whom it is a norm rather than a curiosity to speak more than three languages in everyday conversations is not only fascinating but also sharpens one’s mind. Aware of the number of languages present, the high pace of switches between them, the normality of the mixing and knowledge of at least some of the languages brought me to a point where a mixed use of “codes” often constitutes an adequate way of speaking for myself. Clearly influenced by the people of the villages of Djibonker and Brin, Casamance, I unconsciously started to mix German with other languages without noticing when talking to my family on the phone, who commented on this and raised my awareness of it. Now having been in Senegal for more than two months I often have to remind my linguist’s brain not to forget to think about how people use their linguistic repertoires instead of just accepting mixing and the flow that comes with it.

Asking one of my most frequent questions – what language did you use and why? – which I can now express in different languages and mixtures of them, depending on whom I am talking to in which context, I am definitely expecting an answer, even if it is that the person I’m asking says that he or she does not know. Then one day, our team had the pleasure of being introduced to Maxime Sagna who is, to our knowledge, the only deaf person in the village of Djibonker, and suddenly this highly significant question for my research became impossible to ask.

Maxime must now be around 16 years old and came to the village nearly five years ago from Ziguinchor, where he grew up. He did not get the chance to receive any formal education and has not learned any recognised sign language but takes part in communication whenever he has a chance, living an active, inquisitive and engaged life.


Getting to know each other, I’ve tried many different ways to talk about Maxime’s language use to him, and also asked people conversing with him, receiving puzzled looks and answers like “Maxime does not speak” or “He speaks with his hands, it is not a language”. It is unnecessary to mention that my follow-up questions (and me somehow hoping to hear “the name of a language”) confused the discussion about his language use in various ways.

Yet, Maxime is vividly talking all day long and absolutely proficient to make himself clear in a conversation, expressing what he wants to say, explaining even difficult topics, living up to his responsibilities, negotiation work and money issues or just fooling around with his friends. Not only is he able to speak to everyone in the village, also everybody seemingly knows how to communicate with him. Highly interested in what exactly is going on, but unable to ask the question – what language do you use? – Andrés Carvajal, a documentary film-maker and visual anthropologist, and I decided to accompany Maxime in his daily activities, recording a short documentary since that seemed to be the only way to capture as much of the sociolinguistic situations as possible.

The time we spent together opened our eyes and also made us think more and gain a progressive understanding of the complexity of linguistic repertoires and multilingualism.


Carvajal, Andrés & Miriam Weidl (2016) Maxime – languaging without boundaries. Short film. In: Voices from around the world. Special issue on multilingualism in the Global South. Global South Studies Center, University of Cologne.

Big thanks to our friend Maxime and everybody who participated in the documentary. In memory of Maxime’s grandfather Pierre Manga, who succumbed to his severe illness in March 2016.


The meaning of “mixed” and the visibility of women, by Friederike Lüpke

Sociolinguists working in urban multilingual contexts in Senegal (and elsewhere) observe that in the many ethnically mixed marriages occurring in cities, the language of one parent – in Senegal very often that of the mother – often loses out and is not used in the home (e.g., Dreyfus & Juillard 2005). Many diaspora organisations and outsiders, including linguists, tacitly or explicitly contrast this situation with rural settings, where, according to public perception, there is one community language that is “still” transmitted to children. (The scare quotes around the “still” are there to alert to the problematic status of the widely shared view that any other language used in these configurations doesn’t really belong there and threatens the community language. Since there are no monolingual settings in Senegal, small community languages can only be seen as under threat according to this line of thought.)

I just finished reading Marc Schloss’ ethnography of the Ehing (Schloss 1988), a group living not far from the Crossroads research area. As always when reading anthropologists’ accounts of social life in Casamance, I’m struck by the dissonance between their descriptions of movement, and in particular the movement of women, resulting in diversity being woven into the fabric of society, and the constructions of homogeneous communities that are so pervasive in the public opinion and in the ideologies of community members themselves – here is an extract from the statutes of the Baïnounk lobby organisation BOREPAB to serve as an example.

In reality, the vast majority of marriages, in rural and urban settings, is “mixed”. The social organisation of many groups in Casamance and beyond relies on the movement of women into their husbands’ homes. The smaller the group, the more likely it becomes that this movement will bring in women from outside the language area, as I described in my recent post on the Kassanga. But hold on – what is the language area in that case, given that the idea of a zone dominated by one language must become obsolete once the presence of women speaking other languages is acknowledged?


Meta Diandy, a Kassanga woman from Ganjand in neighbouring Guinea Bissau, married into Agnack.

Language areas are, in those villages where descendance and settlement are determined by patrilineal and virilocal patterns, construed as homogenous places based on male identity, a process that I describe in Lüpke forthcoming a and b). A patrimonial language – the language associated with a place – is the language of the male descendants of its remembered founding lineage. Women often can, and in some cases even must, come from areas associated with other patrimonial languages. Their linguistic identity is erased from the outwardly projected linguistic identity of the place, but of course they don’t fall silent. Since cross-cousin marriages are en vogue throughout the region, they can be the carriers of longstanding societal bilingualism, the daughters marrying into the villages their mothers left when they became somebody’s wife. But women can come from all over Casamance and beyond. Even if they speak the patrimonial language of their new home in many interactions, which is not always the case, the other languages in their repertoires leave traces in their language use and shape grammar and lexicon of the patrimonial language . Their children will assume the ethnolinguistic identity of their fathers and, if they grow up in the village, and not in entirely different linguistic environments, at face value do justice to the image of the community language speaker. But in daily life, they will pick up what is present in actual language use in their environment rather than only the proclaimed community language.

Aramata Diandy, the last Bainounk potter, Agnack

Aramata Diandy (left), a Baïnounk Gujaher woman from Agnack, and one of her Mandinka co-wives.

In Kanraxël, a documentary on the multilingual life of Agnack, which we fittingly screen on women’s day at SOAS, women’s identities and language practices in the rural setting of Agnack play a central role. The producer, Anna Sowa of Chouette Films,  in an interview to appear in Cinéwomen, stresses her delight at having  “the opportunity to portray women in Agnack in such a prominent way. Normally women in the village are next to invisible. Our film has showed that they have a significant role in village’s society and identity.”

Working with women, investigating female language use and, more broadly, linguistic practices of both men and women as gendered, rather than taking male speech and male-centred language ideologies as the benchmark, is still far from being the norm in descriptive and documentary linguistics. Since women are erased from the dominant patrimonially motivated identity discourses, and since their language use doesn’t fit the corresponding ideology, they are often omitted from documentation and lobbying efforts based on what Tony Woodbury calls the “ancestral code mode” of language research (Woodbury 2005). Many descriptive grammars are based – even if only for pragmatic reasons of access and availability – exclusively on the language practice of one or a handful of male speakers. Even recent works on language documentation in Africa recommend to start by focussing on and working with male speakers (Austin & McGill 2012), unless the research has strong sociolinguistic interests.

Our ongoing research proves daily that it’s necessary to change tack – not just for the sake of equality and representativeness, which may seem as desirable but too lofty goals to many fieldworkers with limited time and resources. To their concerns, we can reply that including women is crucial in order to collect data that are not skewed due to the limited insight into linguistic behaviour they allow. In the case of West Africa, women’s pervasive mobility, as evident from  DNA analyses (Barbieri, Whitten, Beyer, Schreiber, Li & Pakendorf 2012) has tremendous repercussion on linguistic ecologies, language socialisation of children, longstanding patterns of multilingualism and concomitant lexico-grammatical contact phenomena. Many of the widespread areal convergence patterns can’t be explained based on grammars featuring exclusively male language use and on ethnolinguistic groupings  based on male-centred ideologies only. Only a close observation of mobility and language use of all community members allows for the development of plausible language contact scenarios.

Women, who are crucially involved in the language socialisation of children, are not optional – they are a central key to uncover more complete and intrinsically diverse communication patterns in any society, and it’s  more than time to make them visible. Once we as researchers open our eyes to this incontournable fact, every context becomes mixed, not just in urban constellations and as an outcome of migration and globalisation, but because of motivations predating modernity by long.


Jaqueline Biai, a Kassanga woman from Ganjand, married into the Gujaher village Agnack, with two of her children.