Meeting summaries

Summary Reading Group Session #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.    

Summary Reading Group Session #3

The reading was: Lawson, S. and Jaworski, A., 2007. Shopping and chatting: Reports of tourist–host interaction in the Gambia. Multilingua 26.

We had around a dozen participants again. Our conversation was delightfully lively and probably best accounted for by the series of questions below which we explored. 

Does the article allow us to get insights into the nuances of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia?

Participants acknowledged that the aims of the article were clearly stated at the start and that as such it fulfilled what it set out to do. Nevertheless, ways in which this research could be supplemented were discussed at length. The absence of analysis of naturally occurring data was posited as a possible limitation of the study. However, the diaries were also said to avoid the issue of the Observer’s Paradox (term coined by William Labov), i.e. it was suggested that if the interactions between hosts and tourists had been recorded, the hosts would have most likely adjusted the way they speak. While the limited time dedicated to the data collection (one week apparently) was acknowledged, some of us suggested that more/a different kind of data would have allowed to:

  • account for the impact of the age of the tourists on the interactions;
  • contribute a less coy account of how hosts verbally sought sexual relationships; 
  • focus less on ‘bumsters’ and more on other kinds of hosts, e.g. drivers, National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) workers, etc. involved in the tourism industry;
  • share a more detailed/accurate account of the range of languages involved in tourist-host interactions (e.g. Swedish, German, Gambian languages) and the levels of proficiency in English in particular.

Who are the so called ‘bumsters’ and what are the issues with this term?

We had a fascinating debate around the term ‘bumster’. It highlighted the importance of labelling in research and other endeavours. It was felt, for example, that the term possibly carried negative connotations which are primarily fed by (i) the tourism industry itself which warns tourists coming to The Gambia against interacting with the so called ‘bumsters’ and (ii) the government’s continued discourse around reducing their number, which the article echoes when it talks about strides taken by the Gambia Tourism Authority to control their growing numbers. Overall, a wide range of other issues/topics were discussed in relation to the term ‘bumster’, it was notably suggested that it:

  • refers to people found in tourist attractions in The Gambia (e.g. beach) who engage with tourists for the purpose of achieving an economic transaction (these greatly vary, hence the difficulty in saying who a ‘bumster’ is); 
  • fails to account for the variety of people ‘doing bumsting’ in The Gambia (it was suggested that women and children can be labelled as such); 
  • doesn’t reflect the reasons why these local entrepreneurs, etc. become involved in the tourism industry, namely to provide for themselves and their families;
  • is a rather non-discriminatory/vague term. In that regard, participants raised the issue of who does the labelling and why, of how intentional someone’s ‘bumsting’ needed to be for them to be labelled a ‘bumster’, the processes of otherisation underpinning the calling of some and not others ‘bumsters’, etc. 

We seemed to agree that the term was loaded and that, for the purpose of research at least, other more objective terms such as ‘local entrepreneurs, beach vendors, etc.’ were probably better suited, unless the participants define themselves as ‘bumsters’.

Is the word ‘toubab’ offensive?

As might be expected, and bearing in mind the power imbalance between ‘toubabs’ and ‘bumsters’, we also discussed the term ‘toubab’. Although we started by translating ‘toubab’ (equivalent terms are found throughout sub-Saharan and North Africa) by ‘white’, we rapidly recalled that a more accurate translation would be ‘from Europe or the West’ and/or ‘fair in complexion’. It was emphasised by one of us that ‘fair in complexion’ in The Gambia might include people who may be labelled as ‘brown’ or ‘black’ in other countries. An anecdote was shared regarding a Gambian woman returning to The Gambia after some time in Europe and who, because of her ‘fair complexion’, was called ‘toubab’. Another anecdote was built on the premise that children calling out foreign visitors ‘toubab’ was offensive. This was compared to how offensive calling people in The Gambia ‘black’ would be. Regarding the latter, it was noted that ‘toubab’ was used respectfully by children who are merely repeating what they have been taught to say to foreign visitors they might encounter. Without explicitly saying so, we therefore had a lengthy discussion around the pragmatics of ‘toubab’ as it is used in The Gambia.  We largely focused on what the speakers intended to mean and how it was interpreted by the hearers. Please note that pragmatics is typically defined as an area of linguistics concerned with the study of what people mean-locution, how it is interpreted-illocution and what impact it might have on our surrounding-perlocution. Also of relevance to pragmatics was our observation that the mismatch between Gambian children’s intended meaning when using the word ‘toubab’ and the interpretation of the word by tourists pointed to the topic of intercultural communication breakdowns in tourist-host interactions in The Gambia. 

Sadly, we did not have time to discuss the migration of this term, e.g. as ‘babtou’ instead of ‘toubab’ in Banlieue French which incorporates elements of French verlan, a type of backward slang (e.g. the order of syllables is changed), which has been in use in the banlieues and urban lower classes of French society for the past 60 years or so.  

How insightful was the representation of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia in the article?

Towards the end of the meeting, and drawing on all the insights gained from the discussions summarised above, it was concluded that the ‘toubabs’ were responsible for the reification of the notion of ‘bumster’. In other words, we came to conclude that the term ‘bumster’ was the byproduct of the tourist gaze. This, some convincingly argued, meant that we needed to be mindful of whose vision of the world we were engaging with when conducting research. Tourists were said to deserve attention for what they are, namely social actors for whom only a superficial, fixed interpretation of the world they encounter while on holidays is possible. As such, those interested in doing research involving tourists, for example, were encouraged to carefully consider this and whether terms such as ‘bumsters’, etc. were acceptable descriptions of their research participants.  

Summary Reading Group Session #2

The reading was: Juffermans, K. and McGlynn, C., 2009. A sociolinguistic profile of The Gambia. Sociolinguistic Studies 3(3), pp.329-355. 

We had around a dozen participants. 

Our Gambian participants usefully shared their thoughts on the extent to which the article was representative of the language situation in The Gambia. Overall, they agreed that it was a fairly accurate description despite the challenges of the limited amount of linguistic data available to sociolinguists interested in The Gambia’s multilingualism. The issue of assuming a correlation between ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in particular was raised.

The lack of information regarding the methodology underpinning the article was raised, with reference, for example, to the fact that the authors did not talk much about their own linguistic repertoire. 

The richness and complexity of multilingualism in The Gambia was explored at length. The virtual absence of research into some of the language varieties spoken in The Gambia, e.g. Balanta and Bainuka (Bainuk people are said to be the first inhabitants of Casamance; in The Gambia and elsewhere Bainuk people are now largely Jola-ised and tend to speak Jola). The issue of language endangerment was also evoked, e.g. while discussing the Manjago language. Some of our members also alluded to two  language varieties encountered in The Gambia about which not very much at all is known, namely: Koñaajinka, a language spoken by seasonal workers coming from Guinea Bissau, and Mansoanka, a Gambian language (the Mansuanka tribe, originally from Guinea Bissau is said to face extinction – you can watch a video about it here).

As might be expected the importance and challenges of language ideologies—inevitably informed by The Gambia’s colonial past—in conducting research into a highly multilingual society such as The Gambia underpinned some of the discussions. The issue of the unspoken yet tangible hierarchisation of languages, with English often perceived as better, more powerful, etc. was discussed. The impact of politics on language policy (including but not limited to language-in-education policy) was also briefly discussed.

Last but not least, the imminent introduction of national languages in the curriculum of the University of The Gambia in 2021-22, i.e. the introduction of option modules for several national languages which will be taught as additional languages (for speakers not fluent in these languages and for literacy development purposes for fluent speakers), was also evoked during our meeting.


You will find here all the summaries of all our reading group meetings. So, if you have missed a meeting you can refer to this page.