Daffodils and Snow: Whose Language Matters? Part 1. A Conversation about Decolonising How We Teach, Learn, and Research

Carol Ann Dixon (University of Sheffield, UK), Riadh Ghemmour (University of Exeter, UK), Maica Gugolati (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris)

Introduction (the Twitter Provocation):

On 13 November 2020, Riadh Ghemmour, Indigenous Kabyle educational scholar and member of the Decolonial Dialogues co-editorial team, circulated a provocation on Decolonial Dialogues Twitter feed reflecting on how certain dominant language(s), such as English language, can reproduce colonial and exclusionary practices in the decolonial process.

As a follow-up response, two members of the Decolonial Dialogues co-editorial team, Carol Ann Dixon and Maica Gugolati joined Riadh Ghemmour in a three way, jointly authored blog in order to critically reflect on the question, whose language(s) matter(s)?, including perspectives informed by African Indigenous languages, singing-sign language and evocative Jamaican Patois poetics.

The Conversation (Riadh Ghemmour (RG), Maica Gugolati (MG), Carol Ann Dixon (CD)):

RG: Language expresses a series of patterns, structures and value systems which uphold the cultural heritage, meaning and life of communities (e.g. oral tradition, poems, dance, langue, proverbs, singing, etc). However, in my view, there are some languages (e.g. English, French, Dutch, Spanish, etc.) which still monopolise and ‘colonise’ knowledge production, publication outlets, and written narratives of today’s world. This might result in re-inscribing power structures, hierarchy of knowledge and colonialism when doing decolonial work. So, it is essential to reflect upon some of the following questions which I always refer to when I link language to decolonisation:

  • Why a particular choice of language? 
  • Why not (an)other language(s)?
  • What language(s) are we choosing to tell the story? 
  • For whose benefit? 
  • Who decides about the choice of language? 

While the responses to these questions are not straightforward, I draw on Chilisa’s book, Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012), chapter five: theorizing on social science research methods: Indigenous perspectives, who calls social sciences researchers and activists to challenge the ‘imposed’ hierarchy of languages to give space to other ways of expression in the academy and beyond, otherwise are we even doing justice to decolonisation? 

MG: Yes, Riadh. As an anthropologist I share with you the practice of a very recent discipline: Music Sign Language or “Sign-Singing” that offers a pluriversal way of considering the “normalized” concept of enjoyment and use of music. The MSL is an artistic professional activity that is based in sound, rhythmic and lyric interpretation and creation of music tracks. It is not a discipline that focuses on translation but on interpretation, perfromance and creation through sign language where music assumes shape and body and visibility. Here the American interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego shows us _min: 4:26-8:12_ the difference between translating a song and the Sign-Singing practice. Following Spivak (1988) interpretation: can the invisible minority of hearing impairment people share the music experience as a “joyful communitas” (E. Turner 2012) among themselves and with the auditory-able ones? The answer is yes, the MSL exists in order to provide the possibility of having a common space and shared experiences through music. This practice is holistic and joins choreographic gestuality, lyrical interpretation and it performs visually and kinetically sound and rhythm. It challenges the common sense of universality of the language as focused on the “tongue” (from latin: from Latin lingua “tongue,” also “speech, language”) and on the voice. This artistic practice shows a visual and embodied language that goes beyond phonological communication ; the act of hearing music and its vibrations becomes integrated to the body and expressed by the MSL. Its practitioners embody the act of encoding and decoding (Hall 1973) the music piece; they become a mobile performative intersection between semantic codes, music, and situated interpretations and creations. It  challenges the assimilative dominant approach of normalization  (Silver 2015) that assumes an exclusive practice of space and action (as concert halls and listening or dancing at music) as tacitly frequented and used by exclusively an “hearing” audience.  

CD: Given that these issues are not new, a significant aspect of this reflective analysis – and questioning of “Whose language matters?” – involves identifying and documenting earlier, complementary scholarship to Bagele Chilisa’s work, sourced from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean region, South America and Oceania. This foregrounding of worldviews and global perspectives originating outwith the Euro-American academy enables us to better contextualise and critically appraise the ways internationally dominant and ubiquitous European languages have impacted the lived and learned experiences of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities throughout the Global South and the excluded North over many centuries, and across a wide geographical frame of reference. 

One of the most important scholar-activists whose pioneering contributions on the power of language undergird our responses to this provocation is the globally renowned Kenyan writer and literature professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It is from Ngũgĩ’s long-established academic practice of re-designing and delivering alternative syllabi for colleagues and students at Nairobi University – originally initiated in the Literature Department during the late-1960s and ‘70s as a way of decentralising the historical and colonialist focus on the English literary canon, as a legacy of British rule in Kenya – that we take the titular phrase “daffodils and snow” (Thiong’o, 1994: 677). These words relate specifically to the scholar’s questioning of the imposition of English language teaching – and the dominance of educational resources featuring context about Britain’s natural environments, cultural attributes and social mores, etc. – within Kenyan schools before young people had opportunities to learn about the flora and fauna, seasonal characteristics, socio-cultural values and heritage within their own localities and nation.

Snow-covered daffodils.
An illustration of snow-covered daffodils, referencing Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s decolonial quotation – “daffodils and snow.” The phrase alludes to the imposition of the English language, literature and subject curricula based on the British education system within Kenyan schools as a legacy of colonial rule (Thiong’o, 1994: 677).

Therefore, by aligning Ngũgĩ’s decolonial praxis and ground-breaking curriculum reforms to Bagele Chilisa’s apposite contemporary methodologies promoting the vitality of orature, spoken poetics, folk songs, proverbs and spiritual/non-material ‘acts of ritual’, we will engage in a progressive dialogue that supports – ‘recovers’ and ‘does justice’ to – creative and collegiate ways of co-producing knowledge that are firmly grounded in the traditions of the Global South, and the cultural outputs of associated BIPOC diaspora communities in the North. For my part, as a British scholar with Caribbean heritage, the specific case studies I will reference throughout this three-way conversation include: excerpts from the Jamaican Patois storytelling and oratory performed by Louise Bennett-Coverley (1919-2006) – also known affectionately by her stage name, ‘Miss Lou’; politically aesthetic ‘dub’ poetry by the award-winning writer and performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson; and verses from the spiritual lyrics and ‘livity’ poetics of Rastafarian songwriter/ musician Jah9.

The Theoretical Context

ⵡⵀoⵙⴻ ⵍⴰⵏⴳⵓⴰⴳⴻ ⵎⴰⵜⵜⴻⵔⵙ?

(Whose language matters? Written in Indigenous Tifinagh transcript) 

RG: As I mentioned earlier and drawing on African scholar Chilisa’s call, considering the choice of language when doing a decolonial work is a critical decolonising strategy which [we] need to critically appraise. The Twitter thread was a collective call for awareness to reflect on how using some dominant spoken languages, such as French, English and Spanish can be problematic for communities who have hope to see a better [re]presentation of their worldviews, history, languages and epistemologies in the academy and beyond through decolonial movements.

CD: These are vitally important questions to consider, and Bagele Chilisa’s scholarship serves as an important body of work that offers guidance on “taking a clear stance stance against the political, academic and methodological imperialism of whatever time and place we are in” (Chilisa, quoted in Denborough, 2019: 13). Her insightful analysis of language rights, self-determination and effective decolonial research practice builds on from Ngũgĩ’s (1981) foundational perspectives on decolonisation, and his advice to fellow scholar-activists to always strive to (re-)define what (and, importantly also, where) the ‘centre’ is – both in terms of ontology and also exterior space. In doing so, all individuals are encouraged to situate ourselves as the nexus of decolonial processes that help us “speak for ourselves” in a manner we recognise and acknowledge as an authentic (self-)representation.

MG: The Music Sign Language offers us an example of the need for a cohabitation of the plurality of languages in the same shared experiences. In this specific case, the action of language includes the body as “center and central” (Anzaldúa 2015: 5) of situated communications. There is a kind of “discursive turn” (Hall in Drew 1998) that questions the notion of inclusivity and contrasts the dominant assumption of music entertainment as universally made for being listened to, extending the for granted assumption of the audience of the music performances and its consumption. 

Whose language matters? The practice of MSL answers it through silence, vibrations, emotions and body. In the second part of this blog on ‘Whose language matters?’ (published early next year), there will be the witness and experience of one practitioner of MSL from France who works with rap music.

CD: Absolutely, Maica. Aligning and interweaving issues of corporeality into this focus on language is a necessary part of our holistic appraisal and evaluation of what it means to research, write, speak, and interact within teaching and learning settings – and all public spaces and domains requiring decolonial interventions – with integrity, authenticity and ontological security.

Concluding Thoughts and Further Dialogue

Having introduced a number of important, interlinked linguistic concepts and contexts through which to consider the provocation “Whose language matters?” this three-way conversation has rightly foregrounded the pioneering scholar-activism of key theorists from the Global South – most notably Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Gayatri Spivak, Bagele Chilisa and Stuart Hall. Each of their critical perspectives on the need to value, respect and pursue knowledge that is reflective of linguistic diversity and the intellectual heritage of cultures beyond the West has provided the right theoretical foundation (and departure point) from which to appraise contemporary discourses on decolonising curricula, research, entire educational institutions, and academia more broadly.

The authors of this blog (Part 1) will carry on the dialogue in Part 2 (published in early 2021), with a focus on the importance of ‘affect,’ emotion and care within decolonial work – drawing on our diverse multilingual backgrounds, research interests and lived experiences to critique and advance ideas about the ‘affective turn’, ‘educational justice’ and the ‘worlding of knowledge’ within 21st-century decolonial practice. Building on from the research methodologies and praxis espoused by Bagele Chilisa, we will discuss the rights and opportunities of individuals and communities to acquire, articulate, embody and express linguistic diversity within all aspects of life, referencing the work of leading decolonial scholars such as Leon Moosavi, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and singing-sign language artist, Laëty. This will include a re-focus on language teaching and learning in schools and colleges, but will also align and extend the analysis to creative expressions of pluriversality via the literary, visual and performing arts.

Reference List

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. 2015.  Light in the Dark, Luz en lo Oscuro. Rewriting Identity and Reality. Duke University Press. 

Bennett-Coverley, Louise. 1966. Colonization in Reverse. [Poem] https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/colonization-in-reverse-2/ [Accessed: 27 Nov. 2020]

Chilisa, Bagele. 2012. Indigenous Research Methodologies. SAGE Publications.

Drew, Julie. 1988. “Cultural Composition: Stuart Hall on Ethnicity and the Discursive Turn”. JAC, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 171-196.

Hall, Stuart, 1973. “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” University of Birmingham

Silver, Hilary. 2015. “The Contexts of Social Inclusion”, Department of Economic & Social Affairs, DESA Working Paper No. 144 ST/ESA/2015/DWP/144. Accessible at: https://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2015/wp144_2015.pdf 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the interpretation of Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313

Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ wa. 1994. ‘Kamau Brathwaite: The Voice of African Presence.’ World Literature Today, Vol. 68 (4), pp. 677-682.

Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ wa. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. James Currey.

Turner, Edith. 2012. “Festivals: July 4th, Carnival, and Clown; Music and Sport: Being in the Zone.” In Communitas. The Anthropology of Collective Joy, 23-54. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Web links 

Amber Galloway Gallego TED speech- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkfCD7c2HcQ

Jah9 (Janine Elizabeth Cunningham) artist’s web space and online bio – https://www.jah9.com/bio

Jamaica Information Service biography of Louise Bennett-Coverley (1919-2006) – https://jis.gov.jm/information/famous-jamaicans/louise-bennett-coverley/

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s website (LKJ Records) – https://lintonkwesijohnson.com/

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