Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3






Many Peoples, Many Voices

The continent of Africa is home to people who speak more than 1,700 different languages--and every graduate student in the African Studies Program is required to learn at least one of them. They are welcomed by the Department of Linguistics Program in African Languages and Linguistics, which offers more than a dozen languages from which to choose.

(from left to right) Lungi Sosibo, Ibro Chekaraou, David Adu-Amankwah, Ani Hawkinson, and Auma Okwany each teach an African language at Indiana University Bloomington. Sosibo, from South Africa, is a doctoral candidate in adult education at Northern Illinois University and teaches Zulu at IUB. Chekaraou, from Niger, is working on his master's degree in linguistics at IU and teaches Hausa. Adu-Amankwah, from Ghana, is a doctoral student in folklore and teaches Twi. Hawkinson is the new African Languages Program coordinator, a lecturer in linguistics, and teaches Swahili. Okwany, from Kenya, is a doctoral candidate in education and teaches Swahili. --credit

Along with the popular Swahili, the department teaches less-familiar languages, such as Hausa, the most common of the nearly 400 languages used in Nigeria; Twi, which is spoken in Ghana; and Zulu, one of the official national languages of South Africa. In addition to regularly scheduled classes, tutoring is offered for graduate students who need reading and speaking proficiency in a particular language for their research. For example, a student preparing for research in Senegal could get instruction in Wolof.

Seventeen different African languages have been taught at IU in recent years. The Program in African Languages and Linguistics also offers courses on the history, grammatical structure, and social use of languages on the African continent.

Despite their differences from English in pronunciation and grammar, African languages are not inherently more difficult to learn than the European languages familiar to most students. "Anyone who can navigate German, can do so with Hausa," notes Paul Newman, professor of linguistics at IUB. "Even the tonal aspects of African languages--where pitch on a word designates a shift in meaning--come with surprising ease to students once they get over their initial apprehension." (English uses intonation at the sentence level, such as the rising pitch at the end of a question, but not tone per se). Moreover, these languages offer not only a challenging change of pace to those who want something more than the usual French or Spanish; they can also prepare one for living abroad.

An essential part of the Program in African Languages and Linguistics is the Field Methods course. In it, students learn the hands-on skills required for doing fieldwork in an African country. IUB thus differs from many other linguistics departments where students learn the latest theory but fail to get that hands-on experience. Here they actively engage the languages. Each year students study a different language in a simulated fieldwork setting with the help of an associate instructor from some part of Africa. (In recent years the native speakers have come from countries as diverse as Cameroon, Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi, Sudan, and Tanzania.) The level of professionalism of the course is shown by the fact that every year some of the students often have papers accepted for presentation at national linguistics conferences. This kind of fieldwork is critical to the ongoing exploration that is the department's mission and serves to demystify the continent for non-Africans.

In addition to offering regular courses, the core faculty in the Program in African Languages and Linguistics (Newman, along with Robert Botne, associate professor of linguistics, and Samuel Obeng, assistant professor of linguistics) are responsible for training Ph.D. students. These include Americans (some of whom were introduced to Africa through Peace Corps service), African nationals (who often move into positions of responsibility in education or government in their home countries), as well as other international students.

Today, IU is one of the top two or three African language centers, and there is general agreement that Botne is part of the reason. When he took over as African languages coordinator in 1986 only forty students were taking African languages. Some ten years later--when he handed over the coordinator's position to Nhlanhla Thwala, visiting lecturer in the African Studies Program (specializing in Zulu)--that number had risen to more than a hundred. Botne has also enhanced the program's reputation by arranging the transfer to IU of the nationally prominent journal Studies in African Linguistics, which he has been editing, from UCLA, where it was founded.

What makes the program currently so strong? The "exotic" nature of African languages being taught here is in itself a boon since smaller classes mean more individualized attention to students. Moreover, native speakers teach the language classes, so that students not only get unmediated exposure to the language, they necessarily learn something of the culture. Given the complexities of the continent and its peoples, such knowledge includes awareness of religious differences, social rules of appropriateness and politeness, and the realities of rapid political change. For example, a few years ago IUB canceled its offerings in Chichewa, the language of Malawi, because political unrest there made travel uncertain and finding teachers difficult. Now that Malawi is more stable, a number of students are receiving tutorial instruction in Chichewa.


The strength of the program is also related to its active involvement in the preparation of innovative pedagogical materials for African languages, the most recent product being A Guide to Functional Hausa by Roxana Ma Newman, assistant dean for international programs and adjunct faculty of the Department of Linguistics, and Alhaji Maina Gimba, a graduate student at UCLA.

The African Languages Program at IU has a long history of excellence, but it is not resting on its laurels. It has recently hired Ani Hawkinson, an expert in foreign language teaching and program development, as its new African languages coordinator, and it has taken steps to attract more and better students. Significantly, a student specializing in African linguistics was the first in the linguistics department to be awarded a Chancellor's Fellowship, the most prestigious, competitive graduate fellowship offered by IU.

In spite of the hardships that the continent of Africa is facing, the study of African languages and linguistics remains intellectually as exciting as ever. And there is no better place to pursue this study than at IU. --William Christopher Orem

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