The Ethnographic monitoring: languaging in Gambian schools project (December 2021-December 2022), led by Dr Clyde Ancarno (Lecturer in Linguistics at King’s College), is a linguistic ethnographic research project seeking to understand the practices of multilingualism in the setting of two primary (‘lower basic’) schools in The Gambia.
Owing to the speed at which the world is changing, I use the long-term perspective offered by ethnographic monitoring to capture the sometimes-rapid changes in and subtleties of the multilingual practices of teachers and students in the schools of The Gambia. As explained below, one of the tenets of ethnographic monitoring is that ethnography in education should happen over an extended period of time to be of real value. The project is therefore one of several different ethnographic projects which will happen over the next few years in the two collaborating schools. In turn, insights into these practices will be used to explore the specific social and cultural processes in which they are embedded.
The linguistic fieldwork takes place in two primary schools and the overarching research question underpinning this initial ethnographic monitoring project is as follows:
- What do Gambian primary school teachers do to teach Gambian language literacy and manage their multilingual learners and classrooms?
Why this project?
There is ample evidence in classroom research that expectations regarding what happens in classrooms can either be upheld, subverted or both, by participants. Regarding the integration of Gambian languages in education—particularly (i) as language of instruction OR (ii) in Gambian language literacy lessons delivered as part of the early parallel biliteracy programme—such incongruity, has received attention. For example, the Gambia’s “unofficial bilingual education situation” (McGlynn 2013: 52) is widely recognised among educators in The Gambia and issues regarding the delivery of Gambian literacy lessons are well understood (e.g. the challenges some schools face due to the unavailability of teachers able to deliver such lessons).
Ethnographic monitoring: languaging in Gambian primary schools also builds on the findings of the Gambian languages in education project which focussed on The Gambia’s early parallel biliteracy programme, the only education space where Gambian languages (in 2021) are officially allowed to be used as languages of instruction in children’s education. One of the main findings of the latter project was that those in charge of implementing and delivering the biliteracy programme face a wide range of challenges, some of which would require decades to be addressed (Ancarno, Bouy & Jeng forthcoming). Meanwhile, the project also revealed that the integration of Gambian languages in education raises a number of important issues for teachers, particularly in relation to:
- developing their literacy in the relevant languages (most Gambians do not commonly read/write in Gambian languages)
- giving access to relevant and context-sensitive training to both in- and pre-service teachers (teacher training concerning pedagogical approaches to teaching in linguistically diverse contexts continues to be unavailable in The Gambia)
By focussing on teachers’ and students’ lived experiences of how language is used multilingually in their schools and for what purpose, I am hopeful that the Ethnographic monitoring: languaging in Gambian primary schools will go some way in furthering our understanding of what contextually adequate language in education policies for The Gambia might look like.
Project ethos – PREx
This linguistic ethnographic project is underpinned by three important concepts:
PEOPLE – The project is first and foremost informed by my interest in the human lives at the core of the schools (and their communities) that I will be engaging with during my fieldwork. The decision to use an ethnographic monitoring approach speaks directly to this interest in developing a deep engagement with the people at the centre of my research.
REFLECTION – The decision to undertake a long-term approach in my educational linguistic research into multilingual education in The Gambia largely stems from a commitment to continual self-reflection in my professional practice as an academic. This project will undoubtedly allow me to reflect in ways shorter projects have not.
EXCHANGE – Community-engagement and participation became part of the landscape of my research as soon as I finished my PhD. With this project, a definitional view of exchange as ‘an act of giving and receiving’ is taken. Much research continues to be primarily envisaged as a receiving/taking exercise, whereby the researcher(s) collect(s) data, etc. to be able to further our knowledge regarding a topic ‘x’. I have therefore designed the project to allow for this to happen as it will allow me to gain insights into the multilingual practices of teachers and students, but I have also carefully considered ways in which I could ‘give back’ to the communities, particularly by actively taking part in the lives of the schools I will spend time at.
Languaging and ethnographic monitoring
I adopt a broad view of the term languaging as any practice involving language. In the Ethnographic monitoring: languaging in Gambian schools project, the concept is meant to encompass how language is used from the teachers’ and learners’ perspectives. Focus is therefore on any language spoken in schools: varieties of English, varieties of Gambian languages, and language varieties exogenous to The Gambia.
In simple terms, linguistic ethnography is ‘an interpretive approach which studies the local and immediate actions of actors from their point of view and considers how these interactions are embedded in wider social contexts and structures’ (Copland and Creese 2015: 13). Ethnographic monitoring: languaging in Gambian schools aims to do precisely this, namely gain some insights into the actions, beliefs and knowledges of school teachers and their students regarding what they do or consider should be done with language in education settings. By developing a better understanding of what the lived experiences of multilingualism in schools of teachers and students are, it will therefore become easier to engage with the wider discourses in which such experiences are embedded, particularly those pertaining to language-in-education and teacher training regarding teaching in linguistically diverse contexts such as The Gambia.
Ethnographic monitoring (see Hymes 1980; 1981 for initial discussions of the term) is a particular kind of ethnographic mode of enquiry into education that is characterised by collaboration and cooperation. Two essential criteria are:
- researchers’ long-term commitment to and active participation in the field
- a close consultation with all social actors involved in the research
The premise of this method was that social change through education research absolutely requires the above to be possible:
“Yet, “the ethnography of Malinowski and most other classic ethnography – mere ethnography – does not address such questions as ‘How can we make this canoe better?’ ” (Erickson 1979:186). It is precisely by being involved in a process of ethnographic monitoring, or in other words by becoming more participating than observing, that this can become a reality”. (Van Der and Blommaert 2011: 321)
Ethnographic monitoring in the project allows me to give more equal weight to the voices of my research participants—mostly teachers and students —and my voice as the researcher.
This project was funded by King’s college London’s School of Education, Communication and Society.
The project findings will be relevant to three academic research areas in particular, the latter two having received very little attention so far:
- language in education policy in post-colonial/low resource multilingual contexts
- small-scale multilingualism in West Africa
- multilingual education in The Gambia
The project makes a timely contribution to initiatives in The Gambia currently focussing on integrating its national languages in the otherwise English only education system. Such initiatives have aimed to facilitate content learning, promote a better learning experience in general and support the wellbeing of Gambian children by embracing their linguistic identity. They echo key international education institutions’ established support for mother tongue teaching (e.g. UNESCO since the 1950s), while reflecting more recent endorsement among education donors having previously been criticised for their hidden support for English language policies in post-colonial countries (e.g. The World Bank—largest education donor in The Gambia—July 2021 report ’Loud and Clear: Effective Language of Instruction Policies for Learning’).