LINGUIST Around the World: A Report from Cameroon

Editor’s Note: Our ELCat Team Leader, Anna Belew, attended a workshop and conference in Cameroon during the summer of 2012. This article was taken from our archives.

Ever since I started studying documentary linguistics, my passion has been working with African languages. Something about the Niger-Congo family just charms me. All those noun classes! The verbal infixes! The incredible multilingualism found in so many African speech communities! It’s dreamy. It was thus with no little delight that I learned I’d been accepted as a participant in the first Workshop on Sociolinguistic Documentation in Sub-Saharan Africa, held in conjunction with the 7th World Congress of African Linguistics (WOCAL), at the University of Buea, Cameroon in August 2012.

The documentation workshop took place over the three days prior to WOCAL and was one of the most enriching academic experiences I’ve ever had. Organized by Dr. Jeff Good (University at Buffalo) and Dr. Tucker Childs (Portland State University), it brought together linguists from all over Africa, Europe, and North America to address some really interesting questions. The workshop’s primary aim was, as stated on the workshop website, “understanding how we can adequately document the sociolinguistic contexts of Sub-Saharan African languages.” While “traditional” documentation usually focuses on describing a language’s phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, there hasn’t been as much work (yet!) on how to document the sociolinguistic setting of a language. This includes some Big Questions: What’s the best way to document patterns of multilingualism? How can we document language attitudes and prestige? Which methodologies give the most accurate data? What special ethical concerns might arise in sociolinguistic documentation? How can this type of research help inform effective language policy in Africa? My working group tackled an intriguing question: What factors determine the “market value” of an African language? That is, why do people choose to use particular languages in particular situations, and how do we study that? Answers to questions like these can help us understand why some languages (Swahili, Hausa) thrive and grow, while others (Twendi, N|uu) are seriously endangered. The workshop produced plenty of lively discussion and a lot of excellent ideas, and I can’t wait to see the projects that will come out of it.

Working Group 3 of the Sociolinguistic Documentation Workshop

The next five days, WOCAL proper, were no less thrilling. I don’t care if I sound like a dork calling an academic conference “thrilling” —it was thrilling. Linguists from over 60 countries, from every populated continent, coming together to share their work on African languages. The great minds of African linguistics, in the flesh, giving amazing presentations and making small talk over the refreshment tables. Seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and learning about what it’s like to be a linguist in Senegal, Botswana, the Netherlands, or Brazil. What could be better?

I gave a talk at WOCAL. Full disclosure: it was my very first talk at a professional conference. I was asked to give a presentation and a poster on the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, specifically the Africa section of the catalogue, which I’m the team leader for here at LINGUIST List. It was an honor to be invited to speak a bit about our research process, the goals of the Catalogue, and the broader Endangered Languages Project. It’s a project that tends to inspire strong opinions, and I’m glad I got the chance to engage with a range of questions and concerns from scholars; their feedback will help us make the Catalogue even more accurate and useful to linguists.

It’s tough to pick favorites out of all the amazing talks I attended, but I’ll give summaries of a few that were of particular interest to me. The late Dr. Maurice Tadadjeu, a pioneering advocate for mother-tongue education in Cameroon, presented a plenary address on the Écoles Rurales Électroniques en Langues Africaines (ERELA)  project. ERELA works to make computers available in rural schools and provides resources for teachers to integrate computer and internet technology into their curricula. Here’s the cool part: students are taught in their native language, and the software they use is localized into their language. This means that kids can, for example, learn to use MS Word with an Ewondo interface, writing Ewondo documents—much more effective than trying to teach them to use software in a language they don’t speak (like English). A related project, Going Kompyuta, works with ERELA to translate software into less-resourced languages.

Another excellent talk by Drs. Goedele de Clerck and Sam Lutalo-Kiingi, both Deaf linguists, presented the state of sign language research and development in Africa. A pointed illustration of the lack of resources for the African Deaf community: the talk was given entirely in International Sign Language, but as no sign language interpreters had been available to work the conference, the non-signing audience had to follow as best they could by reading the slides. Rarely have I been more aware of the privilege I generally enjoy as an English speaker, whose native language is an academic lingua franca. Experiencing lack of access to information due to a language barrier (in this case, not being a signer) reminded me not to take that privilege for granted. 

Other favorites: SIL Tanzania’s Suzanne Kruger gave a thought-provoking talk on the ethics of obtaining informed consent in cultures whose notions of individual consent differ from Western ones; the University of Buea’s own Charles Tiayon discussed the intersection of professional translation and language endangerment; the DoBeS Bakola documentation project team spoke about the difficulties of pinning down what language you’re supposed to be documenting when varieties diverge and mixing is rampant; Mark Dingemanse (MPI) presented some recent research on ideophones (one of the most interesting topics in linguistics—look it up right now if you haven’t studied ideophony yet); and Moad Hajjam of the Université Mohammed 5 Rabat presented a sociolinguistic study of attitudes towards Moroccan Arabic (Darija) in Moroccan hip hop. And, of course, there were dozens of other incredibly interesting and impressive presentations of which I couldn’t hope to scratch the surface in a short newsletter article. Suffice it to say that I learned a ton and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

It wasn’t entirely academic fun, though. I’ll let you in on a secret: WOCAL had the best dance parties. And the best ndole (stewed leafy greens and fish). And the most interesting, welcoming, and brilliant people. And the best views of Mount Cameroon breaking through the clouds in all its stunning enormity, as one stands in the foggy gardens of UB’s campus, surrounded by strange noisy birds. I think I’ve left a tiny chunk of my heart in Buea. I exchange it gladly for the wealth of ideas and experiences I took with me.

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