Summary: Reading Group #4

The reading was: Peter, L., Wolf, H.G. and Bobda, A.S., 2003. An account of distinctive phonetic and lexical features of Gambian English. English world-wide, 24(1), pp.43-61. 

We received a few apologies (busy start of term for many of us!) and the staff of the University of The Gambia was also still on strike at the time of the meeting. As we were fewer than usual, we were able to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. The range of expertise and experiences in the room was impressive: multilingualism, language in education policy, Manjago, Gambian literature, teaching…

We started by exploring what was said about the suggestion in the article that English is not used for interethnic dialogue. Based on a series of real-life examples from participants, we established that this is largely true apart from a few specific domains where people’s level of proficiency in English allows them to use English rather than a Gambian language in interethnic communication should they want to. This applied to academia in particular (English is the official language of instruction throughout education in The Gambia).  

The topic of proficiency in English was also broached. Most Gambians were said to be unable to speak English. This was linked to the broader issue of literacy in the country. Gambian languages were reported to be used ‘for everything unless it’s official’. Official situations involving people unable to speak English led us to explore in great depth language brokering in The Gambia, some of which breath-taking! For example, the case children as young as 3 years old translating for their parents was mentioned. Children from certain areas were painted as being highly skilled multilinguals speaking several languages from a young age (e.g. in Brikama the urban Kombo area of The Gambia). On the whole, ‘bringing someone with you if you can’t speak English’ seemed a largely accepted and recognised practice. Some singularities of the Gambian English-speaking context, however, were also noted, e.g. the fact that ‘some people who have not been educated speak better English than people who’ve gone through grade 12’, or the rote learning of a small range of fixed phrases among children, etc. particularly to interact with tourist and ask them, for example, for sweets or footballs. What counts as ‘speaking English’ was therefore dissected.  

Interpretation in The Gambia more generally was also discussed. Interpretation in churches (e.g. see Karlik on interpreting in the Manjaku churches of The Gambia HERE), in medical settings as well as other settings was there talks about. It was noted that to date very little has been written about interpreting in Africa.  

Our discussions around the topic of comprehensibility of English were also insightful. The important fact that certain English varieties are not comprehensible to some people who have learnt English as an additional language was talked about. This led us to ask questions such as: Which English variety is the most comprehensible in The Gambia? What model of English is most relevant to The Gambia? What is the purpose of speaking in English in The Gambia (e.g. communicating in The Gambia only) and what does this entail for English language teaching? To be understood at a local level was said to be the most important goal of communication in English and British English was presented as the variety meant to be spoken in The Gambia. Concerning ELT, enabling learners to be fluent in a range of Englishes was deemed to be desirable and ways to achieve this were discussed, notably through exposing learners to a range of English varieties.  

We also learnt about the interferences of specific Gambian languages in English language production. For example, Mandinkas (largest ethnic group in The Gambia) tend to replace the sound /g/ by /k/ because it doesn’t exist in their language.  

To conclude, and this was an excellent link to our next session on the topic of language in education in The Gambia, the World Bank July 2021 report: Loud and clear: Effective Language of Instruction Policies For Learning was alluded to because of its commitment to ‘teaching children in a language they understand’. We noted that the World Bank was a significant education donor in The Gambia.    

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