LILIEMA: Language-independent literacies for inclusive education in multilingual areas, by Friederike Lüpke (text) and Miriam Weidl (videos)

In many countries in West Africa, literacy is characterised by a paradox: the formal education system, based on the teaching of the official languages of colonial provenance, is struggling and plagued by stagnating enrolment and high dropout rates. Learners who complete primary education are frequently unable to read and write or lose their literacy and language skills because they have little occasion to use them in their daily lives. While there is a growing movement of recognising national languages through their standardisation, their use in education remains limited in scope and has low uptake. In short, at school students acquire skills that they cannot use in their daily lives (the small elite working in the formal sector of the economy relying on official languages notwithstanding).

At the same time, many West African writers do read and write, but in forms of literacy that are not recognised as such or frowned upon by linguists and education planners. The grassroots literacies they practise are old, such as the writing of African languages in Arabic characters, or new, such as Facebook posts, text messages, graffiti and signage in the linguistic landscapes using the Roman alphabet. What these practices have in common is that they are as mono-or multilingual as their writers and readers. This flexibility entails that they do not uphold strict boundaries between languages, as done in standardised writing practice. You can see some examples of how Alpha Naby Mane, LILIEMA trainer and Crossroads transcriber, uses Ajami to write Arabic and Mandinka here.

Working together in a team of Northern and Southern trainers, teachers and learners in the Crossroads project, we have developed a  method called LILIEMA – language-independent literacies for inclusive education in multilingual areas – or, as Alpha Naby Mane calls it, “l’alphabet sans frontières – the alphabet without borders”. LILIEMA builds on the actual existing grassroots literacies so that they can be used in multilingual classrooms, rather than continuing a language-based approach to education that is always based on a selection of languages and hence creates exclusion.

You can download our policy brief on LILIEMA here. An article in press discusses West African grassroots literacy practices as regimes of writing that deserve recognition. And you can read more on LILIEMA and read and watch testimonies and classroom interaction by reading on below.

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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!

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 condemned live longer, by Friederike Lüpke

Kassanga, or Guhaja, as its speakers call this language, has been declared almost extinct in surveys finding their reflections in language catalogues such as the Ethnologue. But apparently, nobody bothered to check in the last thirty years whether the low speaker numbers reported in the most recent studies based on actual fieldwork on this language (Bühnen 1988 and Wilson 2007, based on data collected in the 1950s) really indicate a downwards spiral towards decline and extinction befor2016-01-11 11.37.48e casting their verdict.

To be fair, it is true that it is very easy to miss this tiny among the small languages, since speakers, as with many small languages on the Upper Guinea Coast, don’t flaunt their linguistic repertoires. Speakers of Kassanga, who call themselves Ihajer have been at least bilingual for centuries. Like their close allies, with whom they identify ethnically, the (Baïnounk) Ijaher, it is part of their language ideology to be proudly multilingual and claim to speak the language of everybody who settles with them – this polyglossic attitude is part and parcel of their role as landlords who receive strangers on their territory.2016-01-13 13.59.23

Already the first Portuguese sources from the 16th century mentions that there are strong ties between the Ihaja and the Baïnounk Ijaher (or Ñanjaher, who call their language Gujaher), and that they can easily communicate with each other. The Portuguese attribute this to the proximity of the languages, but it is far more likely that then, as today, the much less numerous Ihaja were already bilingual in Gujaher. Ijaher and Ihaja have strong bonds reported throughout the written history of the region and in their oral histories.

Despite this longstanding relationship and partial bilingualism, the two languages have remained very distinct – Wilson (2007) reports 32% of related lexical items in a Swadesh 100 word list, and my preliminary data confirm this considerable distance. Unity in difference is a widespread societal pattern throughout the Upper Guinea Coast, and this alliance is no exception. Both groups continue to cultivate family relationships across the border between Senegal and Guinea Bissau that separates many Ijaher from the Ihaja today, since Ihaja villages are all located in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau. Today, all of the Ihaja also speak Kriolou (which they call Gubaabo, ‘the language of the Toubabs’, the most widely spoken language of Guinea Bissau), and Mandinka, the language of the regional kingdom of Gaabu and an important lingua franca across the area. These two languages are also widely spoken on the Senegalese side of the border.

Wilson (2007), based on visits in the area in the 1950s, reports seven villages speaking Guhaja, but claims a shift to Mandinka in most of them. Unfortunately, he does not give the names of these villages. Bühnen offers lexical data collected in 1987 and 1988 in Ganjand (Canjandé) and Sidengal (Bühnen 1988) as part of his historical research. A speaker of Guhaja to whom I talked in Agnack mentions seven now abandoned Kassanga villages and states that rather than shifting to another languages, speakers left them to migrate to cities. This is confirmed by Ihaja speakers in Ganjand visited in January 2016. They say that the abandoned villages were later taken over by Balanta and Pepel.

When exploring the area on the other side of the border, we set off on the barely known dirt road that links Agnack with Campara, a village in Guinea Bissau at the crossroads with the main national road on which the Guinean Ihaja and Ijaher villages are lined up like beads on a necklace. Rather than approaching the area on the N6 to Ziguinchor and then on the road 54 to San Domingo, I the idea was to retrace the route that people from Agnack take when visiting relatives on the other side of the border. Between Camarakunda, the last big village on the Senegalese side, and Campara, the dirt road trickles out and becomes a very bumpy and very sandy path, crisscrossing through palm and cajou groves and rice fields. The first village we visit is Sidengal. Facilitated by our companion, a Uhaja woman from Katel (Catel), we meet the village chief, himself a Uhaja, and a Guhaja-speaking family. That I speak Gujaher facilitates the establishment of contacts considerably, and that I already know some people in Ganjand from visits to Agnack makes it even easier to feel at ease with each other.

Sidengal and Ganjand are Ihajer villages; Katel is a Ijaher village, and the closest to the three Guinean Ijaher villages (Sonk, Bijingen and Jegui). The patterns of observed and reported language use that we encounter in Sidengal is repeated in the two other villages, Ganjand (Canjandé) and Katel (Catel), that we will visit today: The vast majority of adults identifying themselves as Ihajer are fully bilingual in Gujaher, only some have only rudimentary knowledge of the language of their main allies. Children grow up in Sidengal and Ganjand learning Guhaja, but not so much Gujaher anymore, I’m told, and the explanation for this are changing marriage patterns. In Katel, nominally a Ijaher village, the inverse holds: adults are bilingual in Gujaher and Guhaja, plus a number of larger languages, but children learn only Gujaher, not Guhaja anymore.  In the past, men would give their daughters to their sisters’ sons to marry. Since Ihaja women were married out to Gujaher-speaking men, their daughters would thus return to their mothers’s villages of origin in Ihaja area, and their grand-daughters to their mothers Ijaher villages. No wonder that Ihaja and Ijaher consider themselves the same! With more individual freedom for both women and men to marry according to personal affinity rather than to their fathers’ wish, cohabitation patterns are reported to become less predictable, and the social motivations for being bilingual in two tiny languages are said to become eroded.

Still, in Agnack, the village where I mainly conduct my fieldwork on Gujaher, there are three Ihajer women who have been married to Ijaher men in the six households of this tiny hamlet, and one who returned to Ganjand, so the bond is very much alive for now.   And in Ganjand, everybody is firm in stressing that the marriage relationships are very much alive and children continue to be bilingual.  As if to confirm this impression, on my second visit in Ganjand, I find its village chief  returning from paying condolences to a family in Agnack – he learned of a death earlier than I, who lives there and left that very morning! After returning to Agnack I visit the family of the deceased and learn that they are preparing for a wedding in Ganjand. A woman from Senker will be married there.

At the end of this very instructive firt visit, we pass several villages inhabitated by speakers of Kobiana or Guboy on the way back. Kobiana is another language with a negative forecast in mainstream catalogues. The Kobiana maintain close links with the Ihaja, and their languages are lexically very close. It strikes me one more time how different the dynamics of language maintenance and language change are in the entire region. Though often invoked as “killer lang2016-01-13 13.55.32uages”, people don’t give up smaller languages because of large scale shift to these languages – Mandinka, Wolof, or Krioulou. In fact, speakers in Katel, when asked about the presence and importance of Mandinka volunteer that while most of them speak Mandinka, nobody would shift, and that some people ‘become’ Mandinka at surface level only, because they convert to Islam, homonymous throughout the area with being Mandinka, but that this apparent change has no consequences for their language use. Languages are added to repertoires depending on their utility and on personal trajectories, but these languages do not necessary supplant smaller languages.

One more time, it seems that the take-home message from Casamance is this: what keeps small language alive is societal multilingualism, and specific languages are used for as long as they serve a social purpose. Their role as markers of a conjoined, but partly distinct identity must also contribute to keeping them distinct – it is quite astonishing for two genetically closely related languages to be spoken by a population bilingual in both of them to remain so different over at least six centuries. A contact linguist’s dream – and like other small-scale multilingual situations, a setting that calls for being documented, since the present-day configurations and their impact on structure and lexica of languages can provide us with likely historical scenarios to help understand how languages in this area were and continue to be shaped.