Multilingualism, multilinguality and translanguaging: Southern theories and practices

Kathleen Heugh

(Research Centre for Languages and Cultures, University of South Australia)


People of Africa, like those of India, have always exhibited the ability to use their linguistic repertoires to communicate with neighbouring communities and across what appear to outsiders to be linguistic divides. In India, Agnihotri has called this linguistic facility, ‘multilinguality’ (e.g. Agnihotri, 2007, 2014), and this term has recently been picked up in literature beyond South Asia and Africa (e.g. Singleton et al. 2013). In Africa, where each village might have its own particular lexical items and linguistic features as well as ones which connect with neighbouring villages, Djité (1993) has questioned the notion that Africa is a continent of about 2000 separate languages. Instead he identifies language chains which connect one end of the continent with the other. Fardon and Furniss (1994) have taken this idea further to suggest that in Africa, the concept of lingua franca is understood and used in a very different way from how it may be used in northern contexts. Fardon and Furniss argue that in Africa, ‘multilingualism is the lingua franca’. In other words, ‘lingua franca’ is not a single language with circumscribed borders as conceptualised within the European nation-state ideology of the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, lingua franca in the African context is a human facility in which people use their multilingualism or their linguistic repertoires in order to communicate.

In this paper, the terms ‘multilingualism’, ‘multilingualism’ and ‘translanguaging’ will be discussed as viewed within or from an epistemology rooted in contexts of countries of the south. If one takes a position located within ‘northern’ epistemologies and theory, then one may view the concept of ‘multilingualism’ as restricted to ‘multiple parallel monolingualism’ (Heugh 2003). If one takes a position located within epistemologies of the global south, or ‘southern theory’ as discussed by Connell (2007) and Santos (2007, 2012), then multilingualism is that human linguistic facility which allows communication that utilises the entire linguistic repertoire. Multilingualism therefore, as used and understood in Africa (cf. Djité 1993, Fardon & Furniss 1994, Heugh 2003, amongst others), is much more than the restricted view imposed upon the lexical item within northern epistemologies, and it is very similar to ‘multilinguality’ as identified by Agnihotri (2007, 2014) and conceptualised within a southern epistemology. It is not yet clear, whether or not ‘multilinguality’ as understood by Singleton et al., is viewed through a northern, southern or both northern and southern theoretical frameworks.

What is clear is that there is a great deal that Africa and India share, as indeed do they with other contexts of the global south. Linguistic diversity along with the use of linguistic expertise, ‘multilinguality’ as conceptualised in the Indian context, and ‘multilingualism’ as conceptualised by people in and of Africa is the first. The second is a colonial history which continues to define the way that language/s are conceptualised within the formal education systems. The legacy of the colonial period has been to leave behind education systems built on a northern epistemology in which there is an assumption that people are essentially monolingual rather than multilingual and that in order to expand one’s linguistic repertoire, one has to learn additional languages as if they are entirely different from and unrelated to the ‘language’ one knows and uses already. Languages, therefore, are usually understood within schooling systems as artefacts conceptualised within frameworks where each language appears to have discrete borders. Multilingualism within this framing is understood by many and then treated in the schools system as restricted to multiple and parallel forms of monolingualism.

The problem for pupils is that the language regime of schools is at odds with community linguistic repertoires and practices; the problem for the education system is that school pupils, their families and their communities do not practice language as discretely separated monolingual systems.

The intention of this paper is offer insights into innovative teaching and learning practices found amongst remote communities in Ethiopia and Uganda, both southern contexts, and where community involvement and interest in the teaching and learning practices of the school reduce the home-school divide. The innovative practices also serve to build communities in very poor, remote and post-conflict settings. What is striking in each of the examples is that the communities are located near each country’s geopolitical borders, far from the administrative and political capital city. It is in these remote settings that communities have found ways in which their involvement in the running of and providing services for the school have brought them closer to their children’s education while also serving wider community interests.

In the Ethiopian case, it is in such a school that an innovative school principal has devised practical ways to use the local and regional languages in the classroom. The local language Gamo is used side by side and intertwined with the national language Amharic in each classroom because this practice matches actual language practices of the village in which the school is located. Schools closer to the regional educational authority tend to adhere more closely to the language policy in which languages are kept separated from one another in the school, in ways that mirror northern epistemologies of language. Unsurprisingly, the students in the village school have a higher rate of retention to the end of primary and also have higher primary school achievement scores than those of schools closer to the regional administrative authority (Heugh 2013).

In the Ugandan case, owing to 30 years of conflict and gross human rights violations in the north-western part of the country, there has been large-scale human displacement and at least one generation has been prevented from access to formal education. Through the intervention of a non-government literacy organisation that works in close collaboration with national, regional and district level government education authorities and also village communities, grandparents, parents and children share schools. Participation in literacy and numeracy classes in schools has been extended by parents in the villages, and they have set up their own informal early child-care centres, village saving schemes, and micro-enterprises. What the communities have done is to make use of government school language policy that promotes the use of local languages, and to build onto this policy and subvert it in ways that suit each community. Again, this is possible largely because these villages are located at the extreme northern point of the country, far from the national administrative centre of power, and from where it is possible to circumvent rigid policy in favour of practices which more closely articulate with the authentic (linguistic) practices of the communities (Heugh et al 2014).

In each of the Ethiopian and Ugandan case-studies there is evidence of the use of multilingual practices, or the multilinguality of teachers, pupils and adult members of the school community. An aspect of multilinguality-multilingualism that is being explored in educational practices in several countries and by scholars who come from Asia and Africa, as well as from countries of the global north, has been recently termed ‘translanguaging’ (García 2009; Canagarajah, 2011; Swain, Kirkpatrick & Cummins, 2011; García & Li Wei 2014). The practices in the Ethiopian and Ugandan cases reveal evidence might very well be understood or termed translanguaging in northern contexts and it occurs in the southern contexts as a natural phenomenon not as a pedagogically taught practice as part of teacher education. It is argued in this paper that in southern contexts, translanguaging is simply a neologism for old practices (see also Edwards 2012), while in northern contexts this appears to be revolutionary pedagogy.

In each of the Ethiopian and Ugandan settings, there are educational threats which arise from interference by agents with northern interests. In the Ethiopian case, the threat arises from encroaching influences of the drive towards English-mainly education orchestrated by development-agency funded consultants from the UK. In the Ugandan case, the threat emerges from a US-based missionary organisation that is concerned with linguistic division and enumerating languages as conceived of as separated entities. People in this part of Uganda are multilingual, and have extensive linguistic repertoires owing to their flight into exile in neighbouring countries and also owing to reciprocal mobilities of people from neighbouring countries. Therefore artificial division of languages does not match the language practices of people and impedes rather than supports successful education.

The discussion in the paper points towards southern pedagogical practices which embed multilinguality/multilingualism, including a subset of these recently termed translanguaging. The first purpose is to point towards and to reclaim southern theory/ies and practices of education. The second purpose is to demonstrate the educational use of language/s relevant to local ecologies from a southern rather than northern epistemology of education. The third purpose is to reclaim the vocabulary of multilingualism and multilinguality as a multi-dimensional set of phenomena evidenced in practices of the south and as essential in the education of children and youth everywhere.


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