What's in a word?

Hannah Gibson

Much of my research examines the morphosyntax of African languages. This means I am usually working on words and grammar and asking questions about sentences rather than language policy.

However, I have now been conducting research in East Africa for over 10 years and during this time I have been struck by the way in which our understanding of language and languages has the potential to have a significant impact on all domains of life.

The official language of Tanzania is Swahili. One of the consequences of this is that it is the medium of instruction in primary education. When I was conducting my doctoral research in central Tanzania, one of the main languages of the community I was working with was Rangi. Children typically arrived at nursery school speaking only Rangi. Some did have a few words of Swahili. But since Rangi was the dominant language at home and in the community, the use of the official was often more limited. Some of the teachers spoke Rangi, others didn’t. Some of the students spoke Swahili, others didn’t. And so the children’s experiences in the classroom and education varied rapidly. All of this against the backdrop of an often under-resources system.

I was amazed at how quickly they picked up Swahili, adding this to their linguistic repertoire (sometimes alongside other home languages as well). But I couldn’t help but wonder whether there wasn’t a different way in which this transition could be handled. Rather than Rangi being prohibited from use in schools – which is the official approach – I wondered whether there was a way in which this bi- or multi-lingualism could be reframed as an asset rather than seen as a disadvantage.

So I’m delighted to be working on a project which aims to capture exactly these kind of exchanges and look at the issues involved. We are interested in these crucial points of transition and how learners and teachers navigate their often multilingual realities. I’m also interested to see how the situation in Zambia and Botswana differs from the situation in Tanzania with which I am more familiar. A final piece of the picture for me is also what can be learnt from all of these contexts and applied to the UK – where we still have much to learn about multilingualism in education, and in society more broadly.

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