#MemorableMultilinguals: Africans*

I cannot count or recount the number of times that a European who is more or less closely involved with languages (translators, interpreters, sociolinguists, school teachers, …) and who has had an opportunity to visit “Africa” or interact with “Africans” (more on the scare quotes later), has told me in amazement that “Africans are naturally multilingual”.

I am deeply skeptical about any utterances that contain the word “naturally”, or “Africa/n” or “multilingual”, so imagine what a bummer it is for me to be confronted with these three words in one sentence, along with zero other redeeming content.

I suggest that we take it step by step and analyse this statement for what it is: a cliché which, like all clichés, also contains a kernel of truth. But that kernel is not necessarily where you think it is.

While the term “African” is sometimes used in a relevant way, it is most often a catch-all for a whole continent that is more diverse than this simplification suggests. So the first obvious problem with the above-mentioned statement is that it is unclear who these “Africans” are. Based on experience and precedent, I think it is quite safe to say that the people who start their sentence this way are not reminiscing about their last long week-end in Casablanca or their visit to the Pyramids in Gizeh. They are talking about “Sub-Saharan Africa”, i.e. “where black people come from”. This use of the term is of course widespread, including in African Studies, where people general focus on only that part of the continent (because hey, we are not doing Islamic or Middle Eastern Studies, which is where North Africa fits in…). International organizations speak of “Africa” and the “MENA” (Middle East and North Africa) region as two different entities as well, so including only sub-saharan Africa is not a problem per se. However, conflating “Africans” with “black people” is much more problematic: not all Africans are black and not all black people are African. The myth of multilingualism is, however, often applied to black people and their descendants, and often used as a gate-keeping mechanism

We all like to think of ourselves as “naturals” in one field or another. That is because we like to flatter ourselves and also (mainly!) because we lie to ourselves a lot. Most things that come “naturally” to us are the products of our socialization in a specific context, the result of a kind of learning that happens simply by virtue of existing in a given environment and often goes unnoticed by the learner herself. We internalize ideas about the world and our place in it and come to think of these as immovable features of the universe.

One of these ideas that each and every European in my generation (yes, myself included, absolutely!) has been exposed to simply by growing up in Europe and has internalized whether or not they are able to be honest about to to themselves is the inherent superiority of Europe, European culture and European civilization over all things “African”. And when a speaker who comes from that socialization tells me that Africans are “naturally” this, that or the other, then that word has a specific connotation that is problematic. Because on the one hand, “natural” means through no effort or higher processes of learning, through no structured quest or ambition, through nothing else than undeserved endowment from God or whatever else one worships. And on the other hand, “natural” also means that this is the way things are and that there is little one can do to change them, even if one wished to do so.

All in all, this is a lose lose situation for the “naturally multilingual African” – not only is her multilingualism not recognized as the intellectual accomplishment that it is, it is also something that is taken as a default feature of Africanness to the point that the absence of this feature is akin to a birth defect. Europeans, on the other hand, are expected to be monolingual by default (a lie, as we will see below) and any sign of multilingualism is thus “naturally” (see what I did there?) worthy of praise and recognition.

But what exactly does “multilingualism” mean in this context? What Europeans mean to say when they speak of “Africans” as “naturally multilingual” is that they understand that the language they used in order to communicate with the Africans they met is unlikely to be these individuals’ mother tongue. Thus, these people must speak another language. And because it is Africa we are talking about, that other language must be very, very, very different and very, very, very exotic, and very, very, very hard to learn. It can therefore only be spoken by those for whom it is “natural”.

This thinking frees the European from any pressure to engage with the local language and dispenses her from making even the slightest effort to learn it – and we know that there is hardly a European who comes back from a longer stay in Latin America without proudly showing off their Spanish, however rudimentary it might be. Another thing that is implicit here is that there is a hierarchy between languages. I do not think that there is an inherent qualitative difference between languages or that there are languages that are inherently more or less suitable to encapsulate the modern human experience. However, it is a fact that the opportunities that come with a language differ hugely from one language to another. English opens doors that simply cannot be opened with Gikuyu, Zulu or even Finnish, no matter how much one would like the opposite to be true. That is the reality of things.

The myth of African multilingualism, however, obscures the fact that there are still millions of Africans who are, in fact not multilingual in the common sens of the term: they speak only their mother tongue and barely a few words of the official language in their country. The politics, the education system and in many cases even courts and hospitals of their country remain out of reach for these individuals. The fact that the Africans Europeans interact with are often multilingual (because they have to speak the European language, duh) does not make this a universal “truth” about Africa.

Unless it does. I mentioned above that the term “multilingual” makes me queasy and that is because it implies that there is such a thing as a “monolingual” individual. I have never met one. Yes, there are people who master the elements of only one of the systems that we call “language” but even those individuals will speak very differently in different contexts, and leverage communicative resources that bear surprisingly little resemblance with each other. Is that not a form of multilingualism? Indeed, the statement about the multilingualism of Africans reveals the very problematic way in which many Europeans still look at language: as something with patterns and rules that must be learned, as different systems that co-exist with each other in a hierarchy and that are best kept apart and pure. And yet, the fact that we notice the most recent “anglicisms” when they crop up in German or French but consider yesterday’s Gallicisms in English as a normal part of the English language shows that purity is simply a matter of time. The time when languages used to be pure is roughly around the same time when America used to be great – and that time is not anywhere BC or AD but measured on a different scale: BS. So we can say that all Africans are multlingual, but only if we recognize that all human beings are actually multilingual and stop exoticizing and othering anything “African”.

And yet, the true reason Europeans cannot but notice the multilingualism of many sub-saharan African cities and towns is that people constantly switch and even mix (gasp!) languages and that this mixing is not generally frowned upon. So people are multilingual in one and the same sentence – and once again, like all things “African” – that surely cannot be the right way to be multilingual. But probably it is the natural way (this is true) but then again culture is specifically there to preserve us from nature.

It probably does not help that a surprising number of Europeans who travel to Africa are primary and secondary school teachers using their vacation time, which is much longer than for any other profession and thus allows for more extensive traveling, to do some volunteer teaching down South. After weeks of leading an uphill battle against groups of rowdy school children who are unwilling to do anything other than repeat full sentences uttered by the teacher in English or French, and who invariably switch back to another language during breaks, the only thoroughly positive and uplifting thing these teachers find to say when they come back is: “Africans are naturally multilingual.”

Bless their hearts, they mean well, I know they do.

*The attentive reader may now complain and say that the title of this post is deeply misleading. I have not told you much about the multilingual Africans I was advertising, just about the monolingual Europeans that describe them. Point taken. But would you have read a post about European multilinguals? Were you not “naturally” curious to learn more about the exotic African multilingualism?

#MemorableMultilinguals: Tom

I am starting a new mini-series on my blog, focusing on brief portraits of multilinguals that, at least to me, are exceptional in their language practices. The posts belonging to this series will carry the #MemorableMultilinguals.

Tom’s case could be the starting point of many contemporary articles on linguistic ‘superdiversity’, ‘new’ migration flows, or modern forms of language commodification. He is the kind of actor that intrigues Western academics, because he defies our expectations. Tom, however, does not care about us, or about the West, or what is currently trendy and fashionable in academia.

Tom sells Chinese electronics in Thailand, he has a small stall in the top floor of one of Bangkok’s biggest malls, and he had a very practical problem to solve: How do I stand out from the crowd? How do I differentiate myself when I am selling roughly the same product, in the same place, at the same price as dozens of competitors?

The answer Tom found was in my view ingenious, as it involved his own brand of demographic market segmentation…

“Look, an Ethiopian flag!”

My husband said, visibly intrigued. And so of all the stalls available to us in the top floor of one of Bangkok’s largest malls, we went to this one, only to be greeted in Amharic by a chatty salesman, who introduced himself as Tom.


He had branded his shop specifically for one target population. Each element carefully crafted to attract an Ethiopian clientele. First, a paper with Birr notes, probably given to the salesman as a souvenir by one of his customers. At first sight, a nicely recognizable trace of the homeland for any Ethiopian struggling to decide what stall to turn to for his electronics purchases. Yet pictures of foreign currency are usually also an indication that the currency is accepted in a location. So, on a subliminal level, the Birr notes can be read like an invitation to pay in this currency, raising false hopes in travelers necessarily pressed for Dollars by Ethiopia’s drastic monetary policy and foreign currency shortages. Once these customers had, like us, stepped close enough to the store to make out details, they would be greeted by a wall of text in Amharic.

Plastered all over the stalls tiny surface were the real-world equivalents of a yelp review, diligently submitted to Tom by his customers, scribbled in Amharic on whatever piece of paper was at hand: “Tom is a good trader. Me and Habtamu had a phone fixed. He speaks a little Amharic.”

Tom himself, while able to sustain a brief sales conversation in Amharic, was not able to read these reviews. But he surrounded himself by these tokens of trust, knowing that any Ethiopian customer would be more inclined to listen to one of his countrymen than to a random salesman from Nepal in Thailand. He had never been to Ethiopia, and there really was no foreseeable pathway for him to ever travel there. Yet Tom pragmatically chose to learn the language of a group of foreigners, in order to win their trust.

For me, Tom is a reminder that as researchers we owe it to ourselves to at least acquire basic knowledge of the language of our study populations.

In order to win their trust.