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"Mother tongue won't help you eat": Language politics in Sierra Leone. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations. Vol 14 (4). P. 140-149.

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Abstract

This article addresses the question, how does Sierra Leone's language regime, moderated through formal and informal education, contribute to postwar globalization dynamics? Since Sierra Leonean independence from Britain in 1961, Krio, a type of Creole, has gone from being the mother tongue of a small ethnic minority to the lingua franca, particularly in Freetown, the state capital. English has been Sierra Leone's elite language since colonial times and remains the only official language of government. Yet many other languages are spoken in Sierra Leone in different communities and contexts. Drawing on interviews and political ethnographic work in Freetown and the districts, the study argues that language and identity shift connected to postwar globalization reflects tensions between upward socioeconomic mobility and cultural survival.
Vol. 14(4), pp. 140-149, October-December 2020
DOI: 10.5897/AJPSIR2020.1292
Article Number: 85E0ABF65049
ISSN: 1996-0832
Copyright ©2020
Author(s) retain the copyright of this article
http://www.academicjournals.org/AJPSIR
African Journal of Political Science and
International Relations
Full Length Research Paper
“Mother tongue won’t help you eat”: Language politics
in Sierra Leone
Mneesha Gellman
Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, Emerson College, USA.
Received 16 August, 2020; Accepted 3 September, 2020
This article addresses the question, how does Sierra Leone’s language regime, moderated through
formal and informal education, contribute to post-war globalization dynamics? Since Sierra Leonean
independence from Britain in 1961, Krio, a type of Creole, has gone from being the mother tongue of a
small ethnic minority to the lingua franca, particularly in Freetown, the state capital. English has been
Sierra Leone’s elite language since colonial times and remains the only official language of
government. Yet many other languages are spoken in Sierra Leone in different communities and
contexts. Drawing on interviews and political ethnographic work in Freetown and the districts, the
study argues that language and identity shift connected to post-war globalization reflects tensions
between upward socio-economic mobility and cultural survival.
Key words: Sierra Leone, language, education, participation, identity, citizenship.
INTRODUCTION
Mr. Lamin Kargbo, of The Institute for Sierra Leonean
Languages (TISLL) in Sierra Leone‟s capital city of
Freetown, describes the challenges of promoting mother
tongue adult education: “People are looking at it like, if
you are literate in mother tongue, what will you eat? Will it
get you a job? Are you even considered literate? This is
because only people who go through the formal
education system are counted as literate” (Kargbo and
Jones, 2014). With this assessment, Mr. Kargbo
summarizes one of the many contradictions of Sierra
Leonean language politics that citizens must navigate as
they move through both formal institutions and daily
informal speech. This article addresses how Sierra
Leone‟s language regime, meaning “language practices
as well as conceptions of language and language use as
projected through state policies and as acted upon by
language users” (Sonntag and Cardinal, 2015: 6)
contributes to post-conflict globalization era citizenship.
At the theoretical level, the study argues that language
choice in educational sectors informs identity, and that
the reality of post-conflict globalization entails language
hierarchies that shape people‟s language preferences
and repertoires. Formal sector education policies are part
of the state‟s language regime, while informal education
practices constitute part of lived language practice.
Numerous studies from other countries have confirmed
the way in which globalization, migration, and the quest
for upward mobility shape language choice at individual
as well as institutional levels, including in schools
(Coronel-Molina and McCarty, 2016; Faingold, 2018;
E-mail: mneesha_gellman@emerson.edu.
Author(s) agree that this article remain permanently open access under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
License 4.0 International License
Telles and Sue, 2019). Across these formal and informal
education spaces, Sierra Leoneans respond to a shift in
economic, social, and political environment unfolding
within a volatile post-war and post-Ebola crisis context,
where the underlying drivers of conflict, including unequal
access to insufficient resources, remain present.
Language in places like Sierra Leone may be seen as
not political, since civil conflict has not fallen precisely
along linguistic and ethnic lines, and yet the study argues
in this and other works that language in both policy and
practice is highly political because it forms the identity
context in which people navigate all other aspects of their
lives, including work, education, and politics. One
intervention the researcher offers as a political scientist
with an interest in language rights and education is to
assert the importance of language policy and practice as
political, and something that political scientists ought to
pay more attention to in a range of cases. The study does
not proscribe language policy for Sierra Leoneans, but
rather addresses the complexity involved with trying to
maintain cultural identity in the face of desire for upward
economic and social mobility in a place that remains one
of the most impoverished countries in the world. Since
English operates as the high-status language in Sierra
Leone, the shift to Krio may produce better language
cohesion for people across ethnic groups, but will not
allow most people access to the middle and upper class
jobs, including politics and international development that
continue to require English.
While much attention has been paid to Sierra Leone‟s
transitional justice process, very little international or
domestic attention has been directed to its language
politics in the post-conflict globalization phase of the
twenty-first century. The study contribution is to assert
the importance of language politics in Sierra Leone as
worthy of political science attention, and to document
how institutions and people navigate a language regime
operating in the midst of post-conflict globalization.
Future researchers may further develop the case study
with their own methods and agendas.
Key concepts and terms
Citizenship is the status of holding territorially affiliated
rights within a given state. This article focuses on how
language use, derived from formal and informal
educational access, maps onto how people imagine or
perform their roles as citizens. It defines citizenship
performance as the process by which people engage in
the social contract, both claiming their rights and carrying
out their responsibilities in relation to the state.
Participation is generally conceived of as action that
results from following through on a choice to do
something with others. Indicators of institutional political
participation include voting, meeting with elected or
selected officials, or serving in those roles oneself, as
Gellman 141
well as extra-institutional participation such as protesting
or petitioning to influence policy (Gellman, 2017:12-13).
Indicators of cultural participation may also be political
and could include things like membership and activities in
secret societies, facilitating rites of passage ceremonies
or religious practices, as well as teaching and learning
indigenous languages and associated customs.
The researcher has argued elsewhere that state
language regimes in some countries are rooted in
colonization practices that seek to homogenize the
populace (Gellman, 2019). The researcher has also
previously made the case that in Sierra Leone,
individuals and groups held memories that influence
identity and participation (Gellman, 2015: 151). In line
with Trudell (2012) who looks to find ways for people to
address both upward mobility through dominant
languages while retaining cultural particularity through
mother tongues, this article explores the conceptual
aspects of schooling in a multilingual context, to better
understand the tensions resonant in language practices
in daily life, including in participation repertoires.
Language death is not a theoretical possibility in Sierra
Leone; it is a process on march. UNESCO cites five
Sierra Leonean languages as being in danger of
disappearing: Bom, Kim, Mani, Mo-Peng, and Sei, and
many more will join this list as the number of speakers
drop over the coming years (Kanu undated). The
depreciating value of mother tongue use in Sierra Leone
is indicative of the continuing rise of English language
hegemony around the world (Crystal, 2013; Dor 2004).
While English is a vital skill for economic advancement
through employment and study, Trudell has documented
that schooling in the colonial language often opens these
opportunities for mostly those who come from privileged
backgrounds, and that mother tongue instruction could in
fact yield stronger schooling outcomes for those most in
need of mobility (2012: 369-70). What it means to be
Sierra Leonean in a post-conflict globalizing world is at
stake in the arena of language choice. The study refers to
mother tongue as the language or languages in which
one is raised and bypasses debates over terminology
(Childs et al., 2014: 169, 180-1). Heritage tongue
indicates a language that may no longer be a mother
tongue because of shifting language use patterns, but
that still connects someone to their ethnic heritage.
METHODS
This study draws on a range of causal and interpretive research
methods (Blatter, 2017:2) to address Sierra Leonean language
politics. This includes a year of political ethnographic work (2013-
2014) in the Wilburforce neighborhood of Freetown, where the
researcher engaged in daily exchanges with Sierra Leoneans in
English and Krio. Twenty qualitative interviews with language
teachers, policy officials, and non-governmental organization (NGO)
workers ware also conducted in education and language-related
fields, and many informal discussions with linguists, educators, and
development workers about research themes, including Sierra
142 Afr. J. Pol. Sci. Int. Relat.
Leonean Masters in Development Studies students at the Forah
Bay College, where the researcher taught. It should be noted that
this study is replete with limitations.
The author is a white cultural and linguistic outsider in Sierra
Leone, and responses to her questions most likely were filtered
through the positionality of power that comes with that identity.
Nevertheless, her extended time in Sierra Leone compounded by
the lack of attention that language politics there has received
makes this one small contribution to a larger conversation about
cultural and economic survival. The researcher hopes that future
researchers, including Sierra Leoneans fluent in Krio, Mende,
Temne and other Sierra Leonean languages, will take up these
research questions and further investigate them through the lenses
of their own positions as well. In this way, a more complete picture
of language politics in the country can emerge.
The article proceeds as follows: first, the study reviews the
colonial language regime to document how British rule played a
major role in setting Sierra Leone on the course for indigenous
language loss. Second, the study assesses the contemporary
status of languages in Sierra Leone both within and outside of the
formal education sector. Third, the study examines Sierra Leone‟s
language regime in relation to the formal education sector,
particularly the way languages are incentivized or stigmatized
socially in schools. Fourth, the study looks at the role of the formal
education sector, represented by the Ministry of Education,
Science, and Technology (MEST) as a significant player in
language acquisition and status consignment in the country. The
study concludes by considering the tension between language
continuity and upward socio-economic mobility in Sierra Leone.
COLONIAL LEGACIES AND LANGUAGE USE
A language regime refers to state policies and practices
of language as well as concepts about languages
engaged by language users (Sontag and Cardinal, 2015:
5-6). While some countries may have multilingual
language regimes where more than one language is
officially recognized, in Sierra Leone, English is the
national language and used for state policy and the
formal education system in principle, though not at all
uniformly in practice. Krio, the contemporary lingua
franca in Sierra Leone, has gone from being the mother
tongue of a small minority of ethnically Krio people, less
than two percent of the total population, to the dominant
language throughout much of the country. Frequently
characterized as the most “neutral” indigenous language,
this is probably more a result of Krio‟s now mainstream
use rather than any actual neutrality, particularly as
stories abound of ethnic Krios looking down upon non-
ethnic Krios who speak the language (Francis and
Kamada, 2001:237).
Krio as a language was formed by different groups of
people sent to Sierra Leone in the late 1700s and early
1800s. This influx of Black immigrants, termed Settlers,
included freed slaves from England, Nova Scotians, who
were former American slaves granted their freedom by
fighting for the British during the US War of
Independence, and Maroons, enslaved people from
Jamaica who had fought for their freedom and been
exiled to Sierra Leone via Nova Scotia (Fyfe, 1962; Fyle
1981:45). The final group to facilitate the development of
Krio were liberated Africans, people from all over West
Africa who were sold into slavery, but recaptured by
British abolitionists on the high seas and rerouted to
Britain‟s colony in Sierra Leone (Fyle, 1994:46). Out of a
need to communicate in the Colony, African syntax fused
with English words to develop the Krio language, and
descendants of these four groups are today considered
ethnic Krios (Fyle, 1994: 46).
The English language regime in Sierra Leone
embodies the country‟s colonial, racist legacy, where
language and cultural practices deemed useful to the
British were valued over indigenous ones. This is in line
with a wide literature on the effects of colonialism on
African states in the realm of political authority and
institutions (Beissinger and Crawford, 2002; Clapham,
1996; Herbst, 2000), economics (Van de Walle, 2001),
ethnic identity and nationalism (Marx, 1998), and
language use (Posner, 2003:127-146; Trudell, 2012).
During British colonial rule, access to, and the content of,
public education was directly tied to an agenda of control,
“in order to prevent the creation of educated elite from
among the common people who would naturally be
critical of British rule” (Banya, 1993:165). This meant that
only Sierra Leoneans who could serve the colonial
administration would be educated, but even then, only in
ways that would make them more useful to the British
(Banya, 1993: 169).
Even as education in colonial times was a functional
enterprise to groom those most useful to the colonial
system, the post-independence period has fostered only
modest reform. The basic underlying principle of formal
sector education remains as a utilitarian westernization
tool for those with means to access it, rather than
education as a means to self-empowerment or self-
actualization. However, as Trudell points out, evidence
from Francophone West Africa show that formal
education in the colonial language rather than mother
tongue serves to essentially reinforce social hierarchies
rather than act as an equalizer (2012: 369). The result is
that an undereducated populace is maintained without
the capacity to transcend the inequities that previously
manifested into violent civil war.
LANGUAGE REGIMES AND LANGUAGE SHIFT
Language regimes govern how people present
themselves ethnically and in power relationships. Such
regimes inform how people operate as citizens who are
enmeshed in acutely local but also national discourses
and performances. In Sierra Leone, as Fyle puts it, “a
person may be a Vai speaker, before being a Mende
speaker, before being a Krio speaker, before being an
English speaker, before being a French speaker. What
do we do about his or her primary Vai-ness?” (Fyle
2003:116). In this way Fyle is pointing to the identity
implications multilingualism, as well as language shift
across space and time.
Like urbanization, war migration and displacement
patterns change local language regimes by altering the
usefulness of language as a currency. Massive
movement of people looking for safety and economic
survival during Sierra Leone‟s civil war shifted the utility
of language from something that reproduced cultural
values and systems to something that allowed people to
facilitate communication between diverse groups of
displaced people and forced migrants. Language shift in
Sierra Leone has taken place in part because of human
movement patterns during the civil war, including
displacement and survival of occupying forces. While
Sierra Leone‟s civil war was not an ethnically driven war,
ethnic identity did play a role and its complexity has been
compounded by linguistic shift.
In a group interview, a literacy teacher, Mr. Kargbo,
related how Krio dominance has increased among youth
in rural areas after the war, “I went to conduct a teacher
training beyond Kabala in 1991-2. People told me, „speak
in Limba, I don‟t understand Krio.‟ But after the war I went
back and the children said, „ask me in Krio, I don‟t know
Limba‟” (Kargbo and Jones, 2014). This vignette
acknowledges how the civil war changed language
dominance. Before the war, in Kabala people lived out
their daily lives in Limba, but afterwards, the daily
language landscape switched to Krio (Albaugh,
2018:254-267).
Political party language use
One way that Sierra Leonean tribes have been
harnessed is through political parties, although ethnic
identity no longer automatically correlates with linguistic
identity in current times. Nevertheless, language and
ethnicity has been used divisively by parties and
politicians to such an extent (Christensen and Mats,
2008:518-9; Zack-Williams, 1999:146, 153) that fear of
being labeled tribalist has kept many indigenous
community leaders from advocating for linguistic rights
(Kargbo and Jones, 2014). In the period after
independence, ethnic divisions crystalized into the
Mende-led Sierra Leone People‟s Party (SLPP) and the
Temne-led All People‟s Congress (APC) (Lumeh,
2009:22-29).
In political party usage, language and ethnic identities
are discussed interchangeably, even though Krio is used
as a platform to recruit members to both parties as well
as to publicize platforms. As Francis and Kamanda point
out, ethnically driven political divisions permeated the
media as well, with newspapers serving as “the
mouthpieces of the different ethno- regional-based
parties, such as the APC‟s We Yone newspaper and
SLPP‟s Skpndh (Francis and Kamada, 2001: 234).
However, it is worth noting that both publications were
written in Krio rather than Mende or Temne. This may be
due to low literacy in Mende and Temne, and also
influenced by the nod towards national unity that the use
Gellman 143
of post-war Krio implies. Publishing political material in a
language other than English or Krio could run afoul of
tribalist claims. Such caution dampens language
activism, and this is understandable in a place where
ethnic identity became entrenched in both politics and the
media that publicized it.
Ethnicity continues to be a prime characteristic used to
assess someone‟s potential for upward social mobility or
access to positions of power (Francis and Kamada, 2001:
234). Francis and Kamanda (2001: 234) note that elites
across ethnic groups, including Krio, Mende, Themne,
and later Limba, have harnessed ethnic identity as a tool
to obtain their own agendas in both pre- and post-colonial
times. While command of English will facilitate access to
increased economic and educational opportunities in
Sierra Leone and abroad, ethnic identification, including
linguistic identification of co-ethnics, was and is used as a
tool of political organizing that has real consequences for
how citizenship is performed. On the one hand, the SLPP
and APC retain control of their constituencies by rallying
tribal loyalties, but this is not a foolproof method. In
informal conversations during ethnography (broadly
including regular daily interactions) with working class
Sierra Leonean mothers who spent the war period in
Freetown, they commented that though they were Mende
or Krio, they voted for the APC instead of SLPP because
they could not stomach supporting SLPP based on what
they perceived as the party‟s role in the war and therefore
in the tragedies that befell their families (Anonymous,
2014c).
It is the connection between political party mobilization
of ethnic cleavages and indigenous languages as tools of
those cleavages that has made people shy away from
mobilizing around language rights as a cultural right in
Freetown. Mr. Kargbo of TISLL reflected on how, though
some members of the Limba Development Association
wanted to mobilize a promotion of the Limba language,
others halted the conversation by reminding people that
they could be accused of tribalism, thus language
promotion efforts were not pursued on that premise
(Kargbo and Jones, 2014). Therefore, the tribalist
organization of party politics has tainted the potential for
ethnic mobilization in the cultural realm, where people do
not want to mobilize around language promotion because
they fear tribal stigma. Similarly, ethnic identification in
formal education has also been tainted as tribalist, rather
than diversity-promoting, because of preferential
treatment through the handing out of educational
scholarships based on ethnicity rather than merit (Francis
and Kamada, 2001:234-5).
LANGUAGE STATUS AND IDENTITY
In the past, the homogenization of language was seen as
an inevitable part of the modernization and
democratization process, though in recent years this has
been complicated as language diversity issues have
144 Afr. J. Pol. Sci. Int. Relat.
surfaced in the Global North (Sontag and Cardinal, 2015:
10). In the West African context, Ghana, Burkina Faso,
and Côte d‟Ivoire have all piloted bilingual education
programs with some success. These countries may
consider themselves to be multilingual, the general term
for multiple languages being employed by the same
group of speakers. However, diglossia, defined as a kind
of societal multilingualism where two different languages
of divergent status are used within one community of
speakers (Fishman, 2006:69), more accurately describes
the language use and performance happening in Sierra
Leone.
Diglossia is common in Creole-speaking parts of the
world, with the former colonial language being considered
high status and the local Creole low status (Sengova,
2006: 184). Creoles are separate languages that operate
with distinct status differentials. Scholar Abdul Bangura
labels the linguistic situation in Sierra Leone as one type
of polyglossia, or what he terms “double overlapping
diglossia” (Bangura, 2006:160). In double overlapping
diglossia, English serves as the high status language in
relation to lower status Krio, which in turn is used as the
high status language in relation to other lower status
indigenous languages (Bangura, 2006: 160). Bangura
notes that like Krio, Mende and Temne are also both
considered low status in relation to English but serve as
high status languages in relation to other indigenous
languages, hence the double overlapping characteristic
of diglossia in Sierra Leone (Bangura, 2006: 161). The
status categories derive in part from the contexts in which
different languages are supposed to be used; for
example, English in classrooms and Krio, Mende, or
Temne in commerce across ethnic groups, depending on
the region. Krio is the dominant economic language in
Freetown; Temne is concentrated in the north of the
country; and Mende in the south and parts of the east,
though migration patterns have made these traditional
language zones more fluid.
Beyond these ascribed language functions are
perceptions of language utility. English is associated with
functions of the state, essentially operating at the national
level; while indigenous languages, particularly in rural
areas, continue their function maintaining ethnically
based nationalism (Bangura, 2006:158). Bypassing
debate about whether English should be considered an
“indigenous” African language or an “Africanized”
language (Chisanga, 1997; Crystal, 2013; Kachru, 1994),
the study focuses instead on the unmistakable reality that
English is the high status language in Sierra Leone in
relation to all other languages.
Bangura‟s observation above highlights the power
dynamics inherent within double overlapping diglossia,
and distinguishes Sierra Leone‟s language landscape
from bilingualism, where two languages may be used by
the same population of speakers without an implicit
status differentiation. In fact, the historical reality of British
colonialism that paved the way for English‟s supposed
neutrality, in addition to its obvious association with
globalization and the potential economic benefits that its
use may bring, has also undermined the status of local
languages in ways that leave many Sierra Leoneans
lacking “cultural self-confidence” (Bangura, 2006:159).
As elsewhere in the world, rural communities in Sierra
Leone are better able to retain and pass on community
languages through generations, albeit without literacy
skills, as children and grandchildren learn from parents
and grandparents in everyday home and community life.
In many Sierra Leonean villages, it is common to have no
English speakers whatsoever, with more prosperous
locals speaking a mix of the local language and Krio. For
example, when the researcher asked a British NGO
worker in a small village in eastern Sierra Leone in 2014
what languages he usually uses in his work with locals on
community development, he responded “Kri-ende,”
meaning a mixture of Krio and Mende (Anonymous,
2014b). Such language mixture is typical of villages that
rely on community-funded schools, rather than
government-supported ones, as teachers at community
schools come directly from the villages themselves and
have less exposure to English than their government
teachers counter-parts. While this situation allows for
increased mother tongue use, it invariably poses
problems for students who seek continued study beyond
the primary level. Such students usually have to leave
their home villages and attend school in a larger town
where they are dropped into English immersion at older
ages, and where the subject matter is considerably more
sophisticated than in grades one through three. Though
English skills are prized above all others, Krio, one of
nearly twenty indigenous languages in Sierra Leone, has
become the next best thing, and its standardized
orthography was developed in 1984 by the Ministry of
Education (Kamarah, 1994: 135). Increasing urbanization
means that the prioritization of some indigenous
languages over others is a national-scale phenomenon,
while the devaluation of other indigenous languages is
more pronounced in the capital city of Freetown, as well
as in regional trade hub cities such as Bo and Makeni. In
2020, 1.2 million Sierra Leoneans, out of a total
population of 6.6 million, live in Freetown, with 42% of the
total population living in urban areas (CIA, 2020).
Urbanization continues at a steady pace (Government of
Sierra Leone, 2013: 1) and will continue to impact the
language landscape of the country.
EDUCATION AS HIERARCHY-ENFORCER
Education is a human right explicitly articulated in Article
26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, which states that elementary education should be
free and available to all, and that its purpose is “full
development of the human personality” (UN, 1948).
Though there are tremendous challenges to educational
access and quality in Sierra Leone, particularly for rural,
poor, female school-age children, government
commitment to education as a human right and its
understanding of education as vital for socioeconomic
advancement was reiterated as part of formal policy in
2013, supported by a range of United Nations agencies
and other international actors (UNESCO 2017;
Government of Sierra Leone, 2013: xiii).
According to the late Sierra Leonean scholar and linguist
Clifford Fyle, there is no monolingual country in Africa,
and it is the multilingual nature of African states that
makes their education policies so challenging (Fyle,
2003:115). Multilingualism includes both individual and
group multilingualism, but in this paper focuses on group,
or societal multilingualism, which acknowledges the
impact of speaker communities on language use, rather
than solely individual language ability (Baker, 2011:66).
Societal multilingualism indicates that speakers may use
different languages in different circumstances, making
the implications for formal education language policy and
practice more challenging. Social conditioning resulting
from colonial era educational has resulted in a local
population that values English as a high status language,
over other languages deemed lower-status (Sengova,
1987: 528). These language status stigmas permeate
social interactions, with non-English speakers cast as
less capable of engaging with the institutions that define
citizenship such as government offices and schools.
Language status hierarchies play out in schools in a
variety of ways. One of these is through punishment by
teachers of students who use non-target languages, a
practice that reinforces notions of shame regarding
linguistic minority identity. The researcher has previously
documented the connections between emotions like
shame or anger in quieting or amplifying demands,
respectively, for cultural rights like the right to mother
tongue education (Gellman 2017). As in many countries,
punishment by teachers for minority language use by
students has been a common practice for generations
(Faingold, 2018:72; McCarty et al., 2014). This was the
case in Sierra Leone throughout the post-colonial period
until very recently (Bangura, 2006: 162).
When Fyle (1976:50) was documenting language use
in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, he noted how even when
children were able to counter teachers‟ punishment-
enforced insistence on using English at school, all this did
was push students‟ local language use into the private
sphere, where youth were more likely to confuse mother
tongue and English language. Such a scenario sets
schoolchildren up for weak command of both languages.
Fyle (1976: 50) comments that: The child, in spite of his
teacher, who knows that this supposedly inferior
language is his only true linguistic possession, begins to
see himself as an inferior human being despising the
native language which he cannot throw away and striving
to achieve a superiority in the use of a foreign tongue
that, unless he is exceptional, he can never attain.
Gellman 145
In this way, over time, punishment for mother tongue use
undermines a child‟s sense of self as unique and worthy
of validation in their ethnic community. The shame that
accompanies punishment often develops into a loathing
or disregard for anything connected to an ethnic heritage
(Olthuis et al., 2013:32-33; Thiongʼo, 1986).
During ethnographic work, in dozens of informal
conversations with Sierra Leonean mothers in Freetown,
Bo and Makeni from 2013-2014, contemporary language
stigmatization was evident, with parents expressing
desire to educate their children in English, with Krio as
the default language, and avoid minority languages in
both education and at home. This is in part because of
language shame, but also directly connected with desire
for economic mobility, which parents see as linked to
English capacity (Anonymous, 2014e). Thus, language
shift writ broadly includes cognitive and emotional
dissonance as people transition from using mother
tongue to an official language. It also points to a rational
approach by parents, namely, to inculcate children with
the most economically advantageous linguistic skill set.
Status is not the only issue with utilizing English over
other languages in Sierra Leonean schools. In a group
interview with four staff members at the Milton Margai
College of Education and Technology, the staff reflected
on the fact that the reality of teacher quality in Sierra
Leone is such that many teachers themselves do not
speak English well, if at all, particularly in rural areas
(Anonymous, 2014a). An NGO worker in the city of
Kenema commented that such capacity limitations in
English mean that many schools, especially community-
supported schools located too remotely for the state to
run them, tend to operate in the local language plus Krio
(Anonymous, 2014b). Families who pay to make the
school operate generally support teachers from the
community itself and therefore the language of instruction
is more likely to be the dominant mother tongue
(Anonymous, 2014b). The Milton Margai staff observed
that community schools are funded by community
members themselves rather than MEST and so constitute
a formal schooling space that is maintained by the will of
its members (Anonymous, 2014a).
A graduate student at Freetown‟s Foray Bay College
who is also a parent of school-age children and works for
a development NGO noted, in state-run schools, Krio
tends to be used as the common language when
students of multiple ethnicities attend a school, or when
teachers want to offer a more “universal” language
beyond the local community language (Anonymous,
2014d). This interviewee also remarked that aspiring
upwardly mobile parents will try to speak to their children
in English if they know how, or Krio if they do not; even if
the parents‟ own mother tongue is something else, out of
interest in equipping their children for as many
opportunities as possible (Anonymous, 2014d). This
shows that indigenous languages besides English and
Krio are therefore not perceived as offering opportunities
146 Afr. J. Pol. Sci. Int. Relat.
that parents would want to provide, and therefore home
life, like school, is preferred in the highest-status language
possible.
The status of language speakers has much to do with
which languages are retained and which ones fall out of
use (May, 2012:155). As Sierra Leone ranks nearly last
on major development indicators worldwide, the impetus
for parents to encourage skills that will help their children
gain lucrative jobs is not out of place. Yet even in families
with means to upwardly mobilize, the practice is
frequently one of hybridization. The multilingual student
and mother commented, the reality may be more of
“Kringlish,” a constant switching between Krio and
English akin to Spanish-English “Spanglish” in the US,
which reveals language aspiration in the context of local
language reality (Anonymous, 2014d).
Nigerian linguist Ayo Bamgbose documents that
teachers, in their own sensitivity to students‟ progress
with the learning material, “often switch between the
official medium and the mother tongue in order to make
their teaching meaningful; hence, an official medium in
higher primary classes is often a myth for the
consumption of inspectors of schools and visitors” (2004:
5). Such practice was evident during this study‟s
ethnographic observations and in conversations with
parents and local community workers throughout the
country in 2013-2014.
In Sierra Leone, the civil war dominated the
international spotlight throughout the 1990s and 2000s,
so linguistic diversity was, and has not become, a priority
for donors except in addressing illiteracy. The emphasis
on English as the language of instruction remains in
place in MEST‟s most recent education policy report
(Government of Sierra Leone, 2018: 47-64), despite
research that shows the advantages for literacy retention
in promoting mother tongue learning (Albaugh, 2014: 84-
5; May, 2003:144-6). Both the 1995 and 2018 Education
Policy reports developed by MEST have reinforced
English-medium policy (Government of Sierra Leone,
1995:34; Government of Sierra Leone, 2018:1), with
minimal mention of other languages in the 2018 report.
English continues to be the goal, but without a means to
attain it.
SCHOOLING IN SIERRA LEONE
Sierra Leone‟s language regime is best described as a
set of lightly institutionalized or ad hoc practices that gear
people towards English-language learning and use. The
language regime concept captures how state policies and
notions of language use are embedded institutionally
through formal education (Sontag and Cardinal, 2015: 4-
5). Particularly in rural areas, soft education policies allow
the first three years of schooling to take place in the
dominant community language, meaning a language that
the majority of students at a given school and their
families speak. Officially, indigenous languages are
supposed to be “promoted,” but there are no details on
how that promotion is supposed to happen in the
Constitution, legislation, or MEST reports (Government of
Sierra Leone, 1991: 9, Government of Sierra Leone,
2018).
All schools in the country are theoretically conducted in
English, with other languages introduced as electives
(Government of Sierra Leone, 1991: 4). Since 2013,
Sierra Leone has followed a 6-3-4-4 education structure,
1
meaning six years of study to complete primary school,
three years for junior secondary school, four years of
lower-level senior secondary school (SS1) and four years
of upper-level senior secondary school (SS2). However,
there is only an academic incentive to study one of the
four nationally recognized indigenous languages: Mende,
Temne, Limba, or Krio, through junior secondary school,
when students can elect to take a language as one of
their Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE)
2
subjects, but in practice very few students choose to do
so (Nelson and Horacio, 2014). Indigenous languages
are not included as subjects on the West African Senior
School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), the exam that
students take after completing SS2 as they either try to
gain college or trade school admission, so there is no
institutional incentive to study indigenous languages
beyond the BECE. Even so, students‟ results on the
English portion of the WASSCE have been dismal, with
the vast majority of all students scoring the lowest levels
of the English exam portion (Government of Sierra
Leone, 2018: 53). Table 1 summarizes language theory
by schooling stage.
The reality of language use in classrooms differs
significantly from the theoretical, and there have been
MEST policy modifications in attempt to align the two. In
its 2010 Education Policy draft, MEST acknowledged that
many teachers in rural schools use the dominant local
indigenous language, sometimes referred to as the
community language, as the medium of instruction during
the first several years of schooling. However, MEST‟s
report in 2018 omits this (Government of Sierra Leone,
2018).
In his earlier work, referring to the1961-1979 period,
Fyle describes the Sierra Leonean government‟s English-
only program in primary and secondary schools as an
“anti-literacy campaign” (Fyle, 1976: 59). In this context,
English-only programming refers to the immersion model,
where children from many backgrounds may enter the
formal education system with minimal or no working
knowledge of English, but are immediately placed in
English-only classrooms with the ideal of rapidly
developing English fluency. Fyle‟s claim that such
1
Prior to 2013 it was a 6-3-3-4 structure.
2
The BECE exam often determines students’ maximum education level, as
only those who pass are considered prepared enough to continue on to SS1.
Many poor and working class children without the means to pay for an extra
year of study to prepare them to retake the test drop out and try to join the
workforce.
Gellman 147
Table 1. Official language use policy during students‟ 6-3-4-4 education.
Stage of
schooling
Years 1-3 primary
3 years of JSS
4 years
of SS1
4 years of SS2
Language use
in theory
Dominant community
language may be used
under 2008 Education
Policy
English only, but Mende,
Temne, Limba, or Krio can be
taken as electives and BECE
subjects
English
only
English only, without
option to take indigenous
languages as WASSCE
subject
programs undermine literacy is backed up by Trudell‟s
most recent work on Francophone countries that shows
how educational submersion in the official language does
not better prepare students in language fluency, grasp of
subject matter, nor in developing their sense of self
(Olthuis et al., 2013:174-5; Trudell, 2005: 239-51; Trudell,
2012). In fact, students in bilingual language programs
(mother tongue plus dominant language) have higher
learning outcomes and greater chances to transcend
poverty than those in dominant language-only programs,
and this has held true across a range of countries
(California Department of Education, 2000; Coşkun et al.,
2011; Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, 2010: 71).
Studies show that rather than corrupting students‟
ability to learn English, literacy in mother tongue
languages promotes the kind of complex and symbolic
thinking necessary for language learning in general and
is compatible with learning multiple languages as well
(Hovens, 2002; Trudell 2005: 242-6). Erica Albaugh
(2014: 182) demonstrates that in West Africa, education
in a foreign language increases people‟s identification
with the nation, rather than their ethnic group, while
people who are educated in a mother tongue appear to
maintain equal attachments to their ethnic group and the
nation. One implication of this finding is that language
shift may entail changing patterns of participation through
the mechanism of identity formation.
RESULTS OF POLITICAL ETHNOGRAPHY ON
LANGUAGE SHIFT
Joachim Blatter, in his discussion of political science
methodologies and methods ranging from truth-seeking
(positivists) to meaning-making (interpretivists) states that
the job of the sense-maker is “to locate an explanatory
endeavor within the general discourse about these basic
entities of social reality…[in order] to provide orientation”
(2017: 9). As a researcher who engages both truth-
seeking and sense-making as legitimate approaches, this
particular article falls into the interpretivist camp and
therefore the results are, as Blatter says, an orientation to
the discourse of language shift. Sierra Leone‟s
educational challenges are no doubt profound. Though
literacy has increased steadily from the end of the war,
from 29.3% literacy for those fifteen years and older in
2003 to 38.1% by 2007, still, in 2018, only 43% of all
Sierra Leoneans over the age of 15 are considered
literate, with gender disparity evident, as 52% of men are
literate and only 40% of women (UNDP, 2009: 4; CIA,
2020). These statistics are a sobering reminder that
formal sector education continues to fail Sierra Leoneans
in many ways, and that language hierarchy is just one of
many issues that needs to be addressed.
At the same time, there is no evidence that speaking a
dominant language needs to come at the expense of
speaking other languages (Gbakima and Kamarah,
2014). Education policy in Sierra Leone and elsewhere is
capable of multilingual design, but language status
hierarchies, as one of many factors, play a role in
determining policies and practices of language in
schooling. This is evident in the group interview
conversations with staff members at Milton Margai
College of Education and Technology. One person
articulated the assumption pervading teachers‟
perceptions that learning English is superior to learning
mother tongue,” and the other staff members nodded
vigorously in agreement (Anonymous, 2014a). Such
thinking evolved from colonialism‟s racist social
hierarchy, but has been adopted by communities and
supported by proof of upward economic mobility
connected to language use (Anonymous, 2014a; Fyle,
1976: 50).
In part, this scenario is based on a misconception by
teachers that using mother tongue will harm student‟s
English-learning ability (Anonymous, 2014a; Fyle,
1976:50; Gbakima and Kamarah, 2014). In effect, as
previously documented by the author (2015) and as the
Milton Margai interviewees emphasized in the meeting, it
is the quality of teachers, both their own performances
and the training they receive, as well as the curricula and
materials they use in the classroom, that remain central
issues in Sierra Leone‟s language learning challenges
(Anonymous, 2014a).
Such challenges are not merely to be cast off as
educational or cultural issues. The main result of this
study, drawn from a synthesis of qualitative interviews
and political ethnography, is that language shift has major
effects on citizen identity, but the impact of that shift is
only beginning to be articulated. Many Sierra Leoneans,
148 Afr. J. Pol. Sci. Int. Relat.
as well as outside researchers and aid workers, remain
focused on the rightfully vital immediate needs of people
to basic human rights for survival. Spaces like formal
education are often overlooked and details such as
language of instruction may little garner attention. Yet
schooling is a doorway that directly links people to
individual and collective identities that can be mobilized
politically.
What is known from other cases is that while the first
generation to lose fluency in their parents‟ mother tongue
may be able to maintain a sense of ethnic identity, ethnic
connections become harder to nurture without language
for subsequent generations. This may be because
participation in village culture will be strained for the
generation serving as translators, and also because as
families linguistically move towards English and Krio,
cultural priorities may shift as well (Anonymous, 2014d).
This study has documented that Sierra Leone‟s language
shift continues at full throttle, and asserts its importance
as a subject worthy of further research to address the
implications of what such shift will have on politics.
CONCLUSION
Hegemony of a particular language implies that while
people may willingly use the language and even seek out
learning it, language acquisition choices happen within
coercive social circumstances, including within the
education sector and socio-economic systems, where
there is pressure or incentive to prize a particular
language over others. Language hegemony operates in
any country where dominant language use is tied to
migration patterns, economic mobility or cultural
hegemony, which is recognized as social mobility through
assimilation.
Language hegemony also points to a broader problem
about ethnic identity and how citizens are able to access
their rights as culturally bound beings. Importantly, this is
not purely a schism between traditional languages and
the colonial legacy of English, but includes Krio as the
lingua franca. Though children are capable of learning
multiple languages simultaneously, in an attempt to
ensure their children‟s future, many Sierra Leonean
parents insist on English-only schooling and speak only
English or Krio to their children at home. Elites operate as
trendsetters, creating norms that other families, as well
as schools and social networks, follow when they are
able, searching for a linguistic boost on the socio-
economic ladder. The long-term effects of these socio-
economic linguistic patterns are yet to be well-
documented and call out for further research.
CONFLICT OF INTERESTS
The author has not declared any conflict of interest.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The author thanks Hanna Thompson, Joshua Dankoff,
two journal reviewers, and all interviewees and
ethnographic participants who shared their insights for
this study.
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Ethnic minority communities make claims for cultural rights from states in different ways depending on how governments include them in policies and practices of accommodation or assimilation. However, institutional explanations don’t tell the whole story, as individuals and communities also protest, using emotionally compelling narratives about past wrongs to justify their claims for new rights protections. Democratization and Memories of Violence: Ethnic minority rights movements in Mexico, Turkey, and El Salvador examines how ethnic minority communities use memories of state and paramilitary violence to shame states into cooperating with minority cultural agendas such as the right to mother tongue education. Shaming and claiming is a social movement tactic that binds historic violence to contemporary citizenship. Combining theory with empirics, the book accounts for how democratization shapes citizen experiences of interest representation and how memorialization processes challenge state regimes of forgetting at local, state, and international levels. Democratization and Memories of Violence draws on six case studies in Mexico, Turkey, and El Salvador to show how memory-based narratives serve as emotionally salient leverage for marginalized communities to facilitate state consideration of minority rights agendas. This book will be of interest to postgraduates and researchers in comparative politics, development studies, sociology, international studies, peace and conflict studies and area studies.
Book
The book tells the story of the Indigenous Aanaar Saami language (around 350 speakers) and cultural revitalisation in Finland. It offers a new language revitalisation method that can be used with Indigenous and minority languages, especially in cases where the native language has been lost among people of a working age. The book gives practical examples as well as a theoretical frame of reference for how to plan, organise and implement an intensive language programme for adults who already have professional training. It is the first time that a process of revitalisation of a very small language has been systematically described from the beginning; it is a small-scale success story. The book finishes with self-reflection and cautious recommendations for Indigenous peoples and minorities who want to revive or revitalise their languages. © 2013 Marja-Liisa Olthuis, Suvi Kivelä and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. All rights reserved.
Article
How do governments in Africa make decisions about language? What does language have to do with state-building, and what impact might it have on democracy? This manuscript provides a longue duree explanation for policies toward language in Africa, taking the reader through colonial, independence, and contemporary periods. It explains the growing trend toward the use of multiple languages in education as a result of new opportunities and incentives. The opportunities incorporate ideational relationships with former colonizers as well as the work of language NGOs on the ground. The incentives relate to the current requirements of democratic institutions, and the strategies leaders devise to win elections within these constraints. By contrasting the environment faced by African leaders with that faced by European state-builders, it explains the weakness of education and limited spread of standard languages on the continent. The work combines constructivist understanding about changing preferences with realist insights about the strategies leaders employ to maintain power.