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In order to identify the unique characteristics of the English variety spoken in Uganda, the English linguists comb through newspapers, magazines, short stories, and novels from that country.© Damian Gorczany
In Uganda, just as anywhere else in the world, not all media use the same language: larger newspapers follow Standard English to a greater extent than small ones.© Damian Gorczany
The English scholars analyse both written English as well as audio recordings. Which are the specific characteristics of pronunciation? Spectrograms and intonation curves provide insights.© Damian Gorczany
English connects the world
English is the world language. People who don’t speak English won’t get far in many fields, be it international politics, science or business. As so-called lingua franca, it is used as a means of communication between native speakers of different languages.
Even though the number of countries where English is the native language is fairly small – Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa –, the number of countries where it is the official language is very high, namely 59. Especially countries that used to be part of the former British Empire use English for numerous official functions, in addition to their respective native languages. This is why English is spoken in courts, governmental agencies, at schools and universities in many regions of Africa and Asia as well as in India.
This makes a lot of sense, because many countries have don’t have just one native language; rather, different local languages co-exist. In Uganda, for example, there are 41 languages, in Nigeria as many as 500 to 600. Sometimes the differences between them are so great that speakers can’t communicate with each other. This is because colonial rulers drew borders, disregarding established ethnic groups. Numerous small tribes and kingdoms were thus often thrown together.
The love for Africa was born
Prof Dr Christiane Meierkord researches how English has been evolving in the former African colonies. She heads the Chair of English Linguistics at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Her interest in countries that do not belong to the traditionally English-speaking world developed on a particular occasion. “The first major conference in which I participated as a postdoc researcher took place in South Africa in 2001,” she explains. “Due to the terror attacks that had just happened in the United States, the number of attendees was much smaller than usual. Consequently, most of my colleagues came from African countries, and many of them were eminent experts in their respective fields. They were incredibly kind and welcoming. The thing that impressed me most was how ready they were to share and exchange data with me. In Germany, academics were at that time very reluctant to do so prior to publishing their findings.” Her love for Africa was thus born. As a result, she subsequently endeavoured to conduct research projects that would further her ties with that continent.
The aspects that Christiane Meierkord studies are the different varieties of English that arise when non-native speakers communicate in English with each other. Even though teaching resources follow British English standards for the most part, hardly anyone in Africa speaks traditional Oxford English.
However, this is not a feature unique to Africa; rather, it happens all over the world, including Germany. According to Meierkord, the objective shouldn’t be for everybody around the world to converse in native-like British or American English. “Only few speakers attain this level of proficiency anyway. In everyone else, including many English philology scholars, the mother tongue will always affect the foreign language, which is evident in syntax and pronunciation.”
Moreover, country-specific aspects of the English language are rooted in the respective cultures. In Africa, people for example differentiate between degrees of kinship to a greater extent than in European cultures. There is a special term for the eldest cousin on the mother’s side of the family, for example, that does not exist in British English.
Christiane Meierkord pays much attention to such details that pertain to people's social context. The discipline in which she’s specialised and which attempts to understand linguistic contact and linguistic change in different social contexts is called sociolinguistics. The history of a country – in case of Africa this includes the history of slavery and colonisation – plays a great role in sociolinguistics. Moreover, she finds it important to travel to the countries whose languages she studies are spoken. “We learn much more through direct exchange with people than by sitting at the desk,” says the 53-year-old researcher.
In her current project, which has been ongoing since 2013, Meierkord collaborates with colleagues at the Universities of Gulu and Makerere in Uganda. The German Research Foundation helped establish their cooperation. Integrated in an international network, the scholars compile one part of the International Corpus of English and analyse characteristic features of the variety of English spoken in Uganda. In a first step, the researchers collect raw data. These may include audio recordings of spoken English, as well as written resources such as private letters, newspaper articles, documents and academic texts.
Subsequently, the English linguists trawl through those data, often with the aid of computer programmes, searching for unique characteristics. In what way are objects sorted in a sentence? How are prepositions and articles used? In the process, Christiane Meierkord and her colleagues realised that Ugandans don’t use the word “please” as often as native speakers of British or American English do. Rather, they frequently say “I request that you …”, a phrase that sounds very direct and downright impolite to our ears.
Consequently, the researchers investigated phrases that are used to express politeness. They analysed each individual speech act, calculated the statistical significance of the occurrence of individual words, and studied the intonation curves in audio recordings.
Interviews with people from Uganda helped the researchers understand why common polite phrases are not used: an equivalent does not exist in the native language. A “please” or “may you” would have no relevance whatsoever. Rather, both express that something is not urgent or important and are not understood to be particularly polite, either.
Striving for fairer grading at schools and universities
Another main objective that Christian Meierkord and many of her colleagues worldwide wish to achieve is to facilitate fairer grading systems at schools and universities in Africa. Once a precise description of the English that is actually spoken in a country is available, it could be factored in while assessing the performance of students at schools and universities.
At present students are often penalised for alleged mistakes even though the country’s president uses his local variety rather than British English in his official speeches.
Surprisingly, it is the students’ parents and teachers who object having this local variety officially approved. They are concerned that the students might be less favourably treated when competing against others in an international company or in a foreign country one day.
4 April 2017