Associate 2015-16

Eyamba G Bokamba


Multilingualism in Africa: Sociolinguistic and Cognitive Dimensions

Multilingualism—the existence of three or more languages as media of daily (oral) communication for a given society or speaker—is one of the most important enduring realities of human history, and yet paradoxically, remains the most understudied and the least understood phenomenon in linguistics. This situation is the consequence of social scientists’ embrace of the ideology of one nation, one language that promoted monolingualism as the norm, rather than as a construct, in the interest of nation-building, national unity and cohesion in 17th- and 18th- century Europe. This ideology in turn led to the suppression and lack of cultivation of minority or ethnic languages as media of communication in public domains (e.g., government, education, judiciary, mass media). In contrast, multilingualism was portrayed as a divisive force in that effort, and the monolingualism ideology was extended to Europe’s former colonies across the globe in the 19th century for the same reasons. Since then, research on multilingualism has been marginalized in linguistic and other social sciences, thus perpetuating its misunderstanding and undermining the quest for the development of a truly comprehensive theory of language knowledge and function that can be achieved not only by studying monolingual and bilingual (i.e., knowledge of two languages), as it is largely done currently, but also necessarily multilingual competence (knowledge of three or more languages) in pervasively multilingual societies.

To begin to rectify the scholarly ignorance and misperceptions on multilingualism, and thereby advance linguistic scholarship as characterized above, this project furthers the author’s on-going research on multilingualism as an organically multi-faceted phenomenon, with an emphasis on Africa as a case study that will culminate in the publication of a book under contract with Cambridge University Press titled Multilingualism in Africa: Sociolinguistic and Cognitive Dimensions. The principal aims of this research project during the Center appointment are two-fold: (1) to conduct library/archival research on the multilingualism’s sub-phenomena of language spread of selected African linguae francae (e.g., Arabic, Bamana, Hausa, Kiswahili, Lingála, and isiZulu); and (2) to research multilingual competence (i.e., the acquisition and utilization of multiple languages) by Africans.