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Field school in Kenya gives students experience of collaborative linguistic fieldwork

Descriptions of different languages help us understand what speakers of different languages share worldwide. At the same time, having descriptions of languages available can also change local education and open our eyes to cultural and linguistic diversity. But what if a language has not yet been (fully) described, as is the case with many African languages?

One of the best ways of describing languages is when native-speaker linguists and external linguists work together. But how to introduce university students to this up and coming field of collaborative linguistics? Linguists from Leiden University and Chuka University and Tharaka University College in Kenya think they’ve found the answer; why not organise a linguistics field school experience for students? And so from the 5th – 25th of January 2020 students from Leiden University, Chuka University and Tharaka University College in Kenya participated in the first-ever Linguistics in Kenya Experience (LIKE) field school.

Collaborative linguistics

Over the 3 weeks students got to know one another, specifically sharing knowledge and collecting data. Students from the different universities formed pairs and worked with native speakers of Kîîtharaka, Kiembu, Gichuka, Kikamba, Ekegusii, and Kipsigis, languages all spoken in Kenya. The linguistic landscape in Kenya includes three different language families: Bantu languages (including the more well-known Swahili and Zulu), Nilotic languages (Kipsigis being one of them), and Cushitic languages.

One of the organisers of the field school, Dr. Jenneke van der Wal (Leiden University Centre for Linguistics) explains the benefits of having students work and learn from each other in this setting: “By forming pairs, we see that the students from the Kenyan universities gain an outsider perspective on their languages, which helps to ask different research questions and use different methodologies. And vice versa, the Leiden students benefit from the cultural awareness of the collaborator, which is essential in data collection, and gain a much quicker insight into the languages they are studying.”

Student experience

For the linguistics students in question, the field school is not only an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in collaborative linguistics, but also to gather primary linguistic data for their bachelor or master thesis. As Leiden University student Nina van der Vlugt says, it is one big and very informative adventure:

Together with the Kenyan students, we’re learning about all the ins and outs of African languages and linguistics and more specifically Bantu languages. How noun class systems work, what local languages are spoken in Kenya, the phonology of Bantu languages, information structure and, very important in African linguistics: what tonal languages are and how to research them. For example, if you want to find out the tones in a language, being good at whistling is an extremely useful skill.”

Bonface Omagwa from Chuka University is also enthusiastic: “From this experience I now know how the database Dative works, how to gather data from the field, I’ve learned how to use various instruments in recording data and how to come up with a good linguistic project.”

Planting a seed

The collaboration goes beyond just the students; the instructors are also exchanging ideas, extending their skills and network. “We can think of this field school as planting a seed,” says co-organiser Patrick Kanampiu (Tharaka University College), “because the students and instructors themselves will grow from it, but they will also incorporate what they learn in their own teaching and research, passing it on to others.” Van der Wal agrees: “I find this collaborative approach is fruitful in many ways and hope this first field school will lead to future partnerships and joint initiatives in collaborative linguistics”.

Chuka University’s Dr. Mary Karuri puts it like this: “For us as language instructors in Kenya, this experience is a big eye opener; it challenges us to think beyond the familiar models of analysing languages in order to have a more comprehensive outlook. We are therefore grateful for being part of this great experience and hope that this is the beginning of networking with language enthusiasts from Leiden University and other places as we continue with inquiry on linguistic phenomena.”

Partners and organisers

Thanks to financial support from the African Studies Assembly, Jenneke van der Wal and Peter Muriungi (Tharaka University College), together with PhD student Elisabeth Kerr (Leiden University Centre for Linguistics) and Assistant Lecturer Patrick Kanampiu (Tharaka University College) were able to organise the ‘Linguistics In Kenya Experience’ (LIKE) at Tharaka University College. A special thanks goes to all the teachers participating in LIKE.

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