Episode 24: Pius Akumbu on Insider Research in Babanki

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2020/07/10/ep-24-pius-akumbu-on-insider-research-in-babanki/

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Pius Akumbu. Professor Pius Akumbu is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bamenda, Cameroon and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Hamburg since January 2019. He received his PhD in Linguistics from The University of Yaounde 1, in Cameroon. His research focuses on the documentation and description of Grassfields Bantu languages of Cameroon, including his mother tongue, Babanki. Additionally, Pius researches multilingualism in Cameroon as well as language planning and policy in Africa. He is an ELDP grant recipient, and a depositor at the Endangered Languages Archive. He is also a member of the KPAAM-CAM project.

So this episode with Pius was so interesting. I really enjoyed speaking to him. He had so much to say about how we can decolonize not only field linguistics, but also academia, and he gave several examples of different models that have been implemented, including Jeff Good’s model of language documentation and empowering local scholars. Jeff Good is someone we had on Field Notes in Episode 13.

And today’s episode is going to be the season finale for Season 2. Thank you so much to everyone who has supported the podcast, either by listening, or by rating us, or by sending an email to share your story or ask a question, and if you’re interested in learning how you can support Field Notes, there is a page on the Field Notes website, fieldnotespod.com, and under the “Where to Support”, you can see a list of ways to support Field Notes, and I’ll link that in the show notes.

And the last thing I’d like to say in this intro of the season finale is, thank you so much not only to Pius for giving his time so generously to this podcast, but also to all of the Field Notes guests who came on this season and last season. Without your stories and without you sharing your experiences, there wouldn’t be a podcast, so I’m very grateful to everyone who has come on the podcast and also support it in other ways.


MTB: Thank you, Pius, so much for making time to come on to Field Notes. I really appreciate it.

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Thank you, Marti. It’s my pleasure, and I really look forward to this discussion with you.

MTB: Yeah, me too. Thank you so much.  So to start, can you share with our listeners how you first got into linguistics?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. It was a coincidence. I can’t say it was planned in any way. I didn’t know anything about linguistics until the eve of my undergraduate studies. A friend just encouraged me, and I decided to try. Before I started, I had no idea what I would learn. Like in most parts of the world, linguistics is not well known. People confuse it with learning to speak several languages. I should also say that the very first department of linguistics in Cameroon was quite new, at the University of Yaounde 1. The undergraduate program started only in 1993, and then I got there in 1994.

MTB: Oh, wow.

Pius Akumbu: Yeah, so I actually went in blindly, but was fortunate to have very good professors, like Ngessimo Mutaka and, unfortunately, the late Pius Tamanji, who helped to raise my curiosity and interest in the courses I took. In the end, I really liked what I was doing, and I took interest in the courses, and so I was really motivated to continue, and I moved on to graduate level. And at this point, I gained fuller exposure, especially through SIL linguists in Cameroon. Yeah, and yeah, I remember encouragement and support of people like Ginger Boyd, Robert Hedinger, Keith and Mary Beavon, Steve Anderson, to whom I’m still… I mean, I’ll always be grateful to these people for their input, and I really got further motivated when Robert Hedinger offered to sponsor my PhD field trips to the east of Cameroon, to the East Region of Cameroon. Without his financial support, I wouldn’t have continued on that path, because I couldn’t find funding from any other source. So I continued with the support of several linguists and eventually completed my PhD in Cameroon. And I must say that Ngessimo Mutaka, whom I mentioned before, did not just encourage and support me even financially, but he was a model, a wonderful mentor with so much integrity, and I wanted to become a linguist like him. Yeah. So that’s how I think it all started for me.

MTB: Jeff Good, during his episode, he mentioned something about how one of the biggest hurdles that early career researchers face is just scraping together that first amount of money to do the first field trip, the first 5,000 pounds or dollars just to get like those first trips out of the way. Then you can do more. But…

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. I think this is what Robert Hedinger helped me to do at that point, and, I mean, without it, I would have done something else in life.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that’s such a nice story. That’s so amazing. So at that time for your first field trips in eastern Cameroon, did you start immediately working with Babanki, or did you do something else first?

Pius Akumbu: No, actually, only after my PhD did I think of going back to work on my native Babanki, on my mother tongue. Yeah, that was the right thing for me to do. I think of what Larry Hyman always tells me. He says I walk around with an infinite corpus of Babanki which I could better exploit, so when I… Yeah, so that’s how I returned to work on Babanki.

MTB: So what did you do during your PhD in Cameroon? What aspect of language did you study?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah, so I wrote a grammar of Njem. Njem is a narrow Bantu language spoken in the Eastern Region of Cameroon. This is compared to Babanki, which is a Grassfields language, so this was a complete new and interesting experience for me. My focus was really on describing the tone system of Njem.

MTB: And then after you graduated from your PhD, you went back to your mother tongue, Babanki?

Pius Akumbu: Exactly. Exactly.

MTB: Can you talk more about your experience as an insider researcher working on your mother tongue? What was that experience like, and how did you think of that? Like how did you decide, “This is what I want to do”?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Going back to language documentation, which is like one of the major things I’ve had to go do back in the field in Babanki, in the Babanki-speaking area, when I was introduced to language documentation, I saw the need to contribute to the documentation, the preservation, the revitalization of my mother tongue. This became very obvious to me this was the right thing I should do. And because working on Babanki has become really enjoyable and fulfilling for me, because I am not just contributing to safeguarding part of the world’s cultural diversity, but also working with people I know, my own people who know me and who appreciate what I’m doing, and when I go to the field, I actually go home [laughs], actually go home and… When working in a community, I live at home with my family and everyone is excited and willing to cooperate.

So you see, you can imagine an outsider would think and maybe worry about how they will be received and cared for, whether they would find a comfortable place to live, or how the people in the area live themselves, whether they would find willing collaborators, whether they will even find the right food to eat. I don’t have to worry about any of these. I don’t have to worry about any of these. I have different kinds of worries, which maybe I will share later, but one big advantage I have is easy access to data, especially on restricted domains, and even the kind of… I could easily have a perspective that would be different from an outsider, because I have been involved not only in linguistic work, but also in community development activities in Babanki, and many people know me, so I don’t have that challenge of having the kind of data I would probably seek to have.

And as expected, I have a wider understanding of the needs and desires of Babanki people. They are actually my needs as well, so I know for sure — I can give you an example. I know for sure that Babanki people don’t need dictionaries. They don’t need language development. Instead, we need healthcare, we need roads, we need schools and so on. And while I do my work on the language, I also try to work with, cooperating with the people to see how we can meet some of these needs while preserving our language, promoting the use of the language, but we should try to meet some of our needs. And for example, based on my understanding that mother-tongue-based multilingual education is what can work best in highly multilingual Cameroon, I have actually opened a bilingual school in Babanki where actually I was hoping children would begin learning first in Babanki and then eventually transit to learning in English after a few years in school. Unfortunately, the project started at a critical time, because the first six classrooms were completed in 2017, but then there is the anglophone crisis which is exactly in that area, and so it has prevented schools from functioning properly. So I can say with confidence that fieldwork on my mother tongue has been so exciting and fulfilling, and I really like it.

MTB: Can you give us more information about the language context of Babanki?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. This is a kind of tricky question, but I just mentioned the issue of multilingualism, and Cameroon happens to be a highly multilingual country where close to 300 national languages coexist, excuse the term, but with colonial English and French, which unfortunately are the official languages of the country. So while Babanki coexists with several neighbouring languages, it also has to deal with the influence of pidgin English and then English, which is the official language of that part of Cameroon, but I can say there are two main settlements that have been identified as the villages where Babanki is spoken by approximately 40,000 people in those two main settlements. But as we already know from recent work by people like Jeff Good and Friederike Lüpke, and many others, the idea that people have a single mother tongue, and that community’s defined linguistically, and ethnicity is equated to language, do not fit the Babanki context. Babanki people are multilingual and use languages for specific purposes, for example to structure social relations and so on. So it’s not… The situation in Babanki is not as extensive as what we know about the Lower Fungom region, essentially from work by Jeff Good, Pierpaolo Di Carlo, and many others, but we see it happening in a lesser degree in Babanki where people use all these languages the way they do. Unfortunately, also, pidgin English has become even more popular, and the domains where Babanki is used have reduced significantly in favour of pidgin English, yeah, and this makes the language to be highly endangered. It’s evident that intergenerational transfer has fallen drastically, and the ongoing anglophone crisis has actually worsened the situation, as many people, especially the youth, have fled for their lives. So it is not even possible at this point to assess the situation, yeah, and with this, the impact of the crisis on language loss, even in the entire English-speaking parts of Cameroon, it’s a terrible situation, and I think unforeseen circumstances like this really justify the need for language documentation, and since it’s not possible to know when a language might face abrupt threats of extinction like we see now in the whole of that area. So I really hope the work we have done so far will be useful in preserving and perhaps, who knows, maybe revitalizing Babanki in the future.

MTB: Yeah. Has the area been affected by the COVID-19 crisis at all?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The Northwest Region, in general, hasn’t been affected terribly much like the rest of the country, especially the metropolitan areas of Yaounde and Douala that have recorded the highest number of cases so far. So the Northwest Region has also been affected, even though to a lesser degree, although we don’t know so much about the COVID-19 situation there because there are several challenges. We don’t know how much testing is done and so on, so…

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a really difficult time, and, I mean, research is not the most pressing issue, of course, in times like these, but…

Pius Akumbu: Yeah, in times like these, yeah.

MTB: Can we talk a little bit more? Before, you mentioned that you have different worries when you’re in the field. As an insider, you don’t have to worry about where you’ll stay or what you’ll eat, and you have intuitive mother tongue intuition, but you mentioned that you have other worries when you’re doing fieldwork. Can you talk more about that?

Pius Akumbu: Well, before… even talking about challenges I face in the field, I could even begin from challenges I face in academia as a whole, and especially with obtaining funding, in particular. Yeah. In that regard, I must say that Cameroonians like myself do not have exactly the same training opportunities, especially in technology and practical language documentation methods. Several factors are responsible for this, and one of them I could mention is the use of foreign languages in education right from the basic level. In my case, for example, when I started school at the age of six, I didn’t know a word in English. May sound strange, but I was in a remote part of Cameroon. I didn’t know a word in English, but I was immediately taught in English and forbidden to use Babanki around the school environment. So I would be punished if I did, and this is the only way I could speak, so it was actually difficult. So this practice discourages many and lays a weak foundation for further learning and actually slows down the development of proficiency in English, which one eventually needs in the long run.

The second reason for this kind of challenge is that universities barely introduce students to language documentation and hardly provide practical opportunities for things like maybe grant writing. This really reduces opportunities for obtaining funding. Usually, we cannot even fulfill that important experience requirement that funders impose. So this directly reduces the opportunities we have compared to others in the Western world and so on, yeah.

And so another issue that scholars like myself from Cameroon and probably from the rest of Africa face is that we are kind of obliged… No, maybe I should say we are tempted to copy models from Western scholars, and, yeah, and this clouds our own interests. It clouds our understanding, even our way of interpreting issues. For example, I could say, when I had an ELDP grant earlier, I mostly followed the traditional practice of documenting a specific language spoken in a given geographical space, and I didn’t pay attention to the sociolinguistic reality of the Babanki people at that time. I would say those are challenges in academia, but when I have managed to overcome all those difficulties and to win a grant, I also face challenges in the field. And the first thing I would like to mention is that each time I go to the field (I mean, several people would say this, so I can say it), people begin to expect that they will have money from me, irrespective of maybe the kind of grant, the size of the grant I have, and so on. It seems people cannot understand, maybe, that some grants are small, others are large, and so on. And while people are always available and willing to participate, paying them for the many hours they would offer is really always a burden.

Part of the problem there also comes from the fact that there were other researchers who had been to the area in the past and kind of just collected data, kind of the term “mined”, kind of mined data and, yeah, and left without leaving anything tangible in the community. So even though people are willing to participate, they insist on sufficient payment. I think it is an issue that everyone faces when they get to the field nowadays, whether they are an insider or an outsider. You have to…

I think of other things, as well, like maybe doing fieldwork in remote areas. In remote parts of the world to conduct language documentation using advanced technological tools, there’s a challenge of getting equipment work continuously, and this is because of limited electricity supply or maybe complete lack of it. Yeah, and I often have to go back to the major city to charge things like batteries or even computers, especially when I plan to have an extended period of, just spend an extended period of time in the field.

And it is always very difficult for Babanki people to agree with the idea that developing and using their language is beneficial, because parents wonder whether their children will be successful in school if they use Babanki as a language of instruction, and they wonder whether their children will eventually get jobs if Babanki is used, because they see everyone using English in like administration, or using like pidgin English for business and so on. And so it becomes really difficult for parents, and even for children themselves, to understand that English, that the children will actually learn better and faster if they begin learning in the language they master when they start school and that once the foundation is laid, they can transfer the skills to also learn other languages and subjects better and faster.

MTB: Yeah, I totally agree with everything you just said. What do you think would be some ways that we can make more opportunities for local scholars? So you mentioned that there needs to be more access to skill development and things like grant writing and maybe technology, and then with the education, so like if they have mother tongue education and then transition into English.

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Let me say I think there are models already that one can get inspiration from, and if we think of the approach that Jeff Good and Pierpaolo have taken in their project, KPAAM-CAM,  KPAAM-CAM project, the approach has been to provide training not just for Cameroonian students, but also to collaborate more closely with staff at the universities in Cameroon. I happen to be part of that project, so every now and then, there is some kind of training not just for the students, but also for staff, and there are conferences. It’s kind of on-the-job training, which is actually improving a lot on skills and giving opportunities including, also, there have been a lot of funding opportunities for students who couldn’t get funding, for example, to do fieldwork. So projects like that that try to empower collaborators in Cameroon or in Africa would actually be helpful to everyone, because the burden is reduced for, if Jeff and Pierpaolo were doing all of this by themselves, the number of students that have completed maybe PhDs, master’s degrees, through that project would have been far less.

And the Babanki school thing is actually a model that we understand from previous studies would work, if you allow children to start studying in the language they already master before starting school. Which is natural everywhere in the world. Yeah, and if, for example, a Japanese child moves to Germany, they don’t just start studying in German. They would spend time to learn the language first, and then they can begin learning. And this is, when you learn in a language you already understand, you deal with just one issue, which is that of understanding the content, unlike the — a child goes to school and is taught in a completely foreign language, and then the child has two major task[s]. First, to understand what they are learning, and then to understand the content.

So research has shown that you allow people to learn in a language they master, and they would learn faster, of course, since they have a single task, and once they are already familiar with the learning techniques in their first language, they simply transfer those to the new language, which we all need English in this global village. There’s no doubt about that, but when it’s forced down on people, it rather slows the process. So this was the idea of, because the government is reluctant to do it, there is all kinds of pressures, and the official languages should be promoted in school, and this is not just for the interest of the government, but also for the interest of even the colonial masters themselves. They want their languages to continue to be promoted, so the only way we can manage this right now is to take individual initiatives, because it’s legal, it’s allowed in Cameroon to use a local language in school even as a language of instruction. So this was where I came from, and so I thought this would be something, if I say it, I teach it, I should try to make it available to my own people.

MTB: Do you think this is enough, or I’m wondering like if there are other things that we can do to decolonialize linguistics?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. It’s kind of hard, but when you consider where the funding comes from, it immediately says some kinds of challenges that will be involved, because the funder has an agenda, and this has to be pushed through. But I think people could begin to think of doing more, such as it’s possible that more Cameroonians, for example, could, or more Africans, could be given the opportunity to also have these kinds of big projects, which maybe with a little additional training and so on, because once you have a perspective, like everything is kind of imposed on you, you may do what you can, but not really what you would have loved to do, so I kind of think… I can’t say, “Okay, they should just give people grants when the people are not prepared or they are not able to do, to execute the projects,” but I think a little more training would help.

And also, if we think of it, it’s even when people go and implement or execute projects in those parts, like in Africa, we should, people should understand that they are working with human beings who have some of those kinds of needs that I mentioned earlier, and not just focus on satisfying our project need, which is to record large chunks of data and go away with them, but also to see that we are working with human beings who have some needs. And when we see in many places other people are happy, we are happy with what we have, with our environment, with the way things are going for us, it’s really nice, but when you see people not being able to have basic education, proper healthcare, and so on, I think donors, funders, could see, try to integrate something in funding which would allow to help these people, whose language, whose resources… This is what people own. And taking it away and just leaving them like that, it’s not really ideal. And as I said, involving more community members in projects can really be helpful, and yeah. And I’ve always thought, also, that like community-based language documentation is where many people have argued that this is the best approach to follow, so get to a community and let people direct, well, parts of the project. People should decide what should be documented and what should be done with the products of the documentation and so on, so it’s a challenging issue, but if people are conscious that something needs to be done, everyone might contribute ideas and we can find something together.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, I think what I’m hearing is that we should have — like us, the researchers, and also, at a larger level, the funders — need to have more of a holistic approach. So if the community needs roads and healthcare, we shouldn’t be so quick to say like, “Oh, well, that’s not our area.” What is good for the community is also good for the language, and if we say we care about the language and we care about the community, then these things can go together. Right?

Pius Akumbu: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah.

MTB: Can you tell us more about your main research interests in your work in Babanki?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Actually, I was… My training was really in descriptive linguistics, particularly in phonology, so I consider myself a phonologist. Yeah, but also I took interest in language documentation once it became popular in Africa, even though it was a little bit later, maybe like 10 years ago or so. It had been in the West for far longer than that. Yeah. Also, I have interest in language of education policy, languages of education policy, since I think the work I do should be useful to the community of speakers of the languages I work on, basically.

MTB: Can we talk about the ELDP grant that you had, so the ritual speech registers? Can you share more about that? You mentioned earlier that, as an insider, it’s a little bit easier for you to get people to talk about restricted subjects. What was that project like?

Pius Akumbu: So I got a small, small grant, which is like 10,000 pounds, and I really appreciate that opportunity that I got through the ELDP to document aspects of Babanki ritual speech. I actually just scratched the surface and the tip of the iceberg. I’ve had a number of other small grants from the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, and even the Endangered Languages Fund and Foundation for Endangered Languages. Yeah. My main aim in the ELDP small grant was to capture the use of Babanki in ritual ceremonies, which I knew, or I know, contain various special speech forms not used in ordinary day-to-day Babanki. So I sought to document the use of Babanki during major events that involve stages of life ranging from birth, to marriage, to illness and death, but this was motivated by the fact that Babanki people no longer perform most of the rituals that were traditionally associated with these practices, so the traditions and customs that are embedded in the rituals and which make the Babanki people unique are no longer transmitted to younger generations. These traditions and customs cannot be expressed nor transmitted in a foreign language, such as pidgin or English. So as the language goes down, so do the… It takes the culture along with it, and that’s how cultural diversity is lost and people are left stranded without a language of their own and without a culture to bring to the global village. Yeah. So I therefore captured the performance of a few rituals given that the time frame of one year was not enough to find many natural performances, but at the same time, I used the opportunity to sensitize people and maybe to encourage them to continue the performance of these rituals, and this was, you can imagine that in the whole of 2014, for example, I didn’t have the opportunity to witness even a single traditional marriage ceremony in the traditional sense of it, and so I had to arrange for one to be staged, and this was helpful, because as people engaged in preparations and eventually staged the ceremony, it became clear to everyone that a valuable part of the Babanki culture was neglected and future generations will not even remember, they will not even remember, how the ancestors used to live or… So this experience actually encouraged, I think it encouraged several adults to think of reviving many of the dying aspects of Babanki culture.

MTB: I also work with an endangered register in my research. I’m looking at the honorific register which now people just use Japanese, which is the majority language. I think I had similar problems to you. It’s very difficult to find natural situations where they’re going to use them, so I did all kinds of things. I tried to get like different-aged people together, or create like a service encounter. Yeah, so I also had some like staged sessions, because it was like it was very difficult to find the naturally spontaneous speech.

Pius Akumbu: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes one has to do that to cover some gaps.

MTB: Yeah. Well, thank you, Pius, so much for coming on to Field Notes. Where can our listeners learn more about the work that you’re doing?

Pius Akumbu: I have my personal website, yeah, with information about my work that even includes links to most of my publications.

MTB: We’ll link that.

Pius Akumbu: Someone might also take a look at my LinkedIn profile.

MTB: Oh, your LinkedIn?

Pius Akumbu: Yeah.

MTB: Great. Yeah, and I’ll include both of those in the show notes.

Pius Akumbu: All right.

MTB: This was really nice. Thank you, Pius.

Pius Akumbu: It’s my pleasure, Marti. You are doing a great job. Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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