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.