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Language Learning in a Multilingual Country

Communication in societies where people speak several languages

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

Our guest today is Leslie C. Moore, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Ohio University who studied language learning in Cameroon. Leslie, could you please tell us about your own linguistic background?

I grew up in a family that was monolingual but bidialectal. At age 12, I began studying French and as an undergraduate wanted to go somewhere where French was spoken, but France seemed “too easy”, so I opted for a summer program in Togo. Then, I served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, where I used French and developed basic competence in Fulfulde and Wandala. Over the years, I also studied Hausa, developed some decoding skills in Arabic, and learned some Somali through my work in the Somali community in Ohio. During my Peace Corps service, I met my future husband, a Dutchman, and began studying Dutch. After the birth of our first child, we began using Dutch as the family language. At this time, Dutch is the only language other than English in which I would claim to be highly proficient across modalities. My skills in all the other languages have declined over the years due to lack of practice.

What was it like for you to learn new languages in Cameroon?

For two years, I worked in community health and development in the northern Mandara Mountains, an area where 15 Central Chadic languages are spoken, in addition to Fulfulde, Hausa, Kanuri, French, English, and Arabic. During my three months of in-country training, I received instruction in Fulfulde. Once at post, I was tutored for a few months in Wandala, and studied some on my own. By the end of my first year, I found myself using as many as six or seven different languages in a day. My proficiency was very limited in Fulfulde and Wandala and negligible in other local languages but I was nonetheless impressed by my own linguistic virtuosity. The local population, however, was not. After a brief period during which people exclaimed over my ability to speak Wandala, my efforts were often mocked for being limited, imperfect, or simply incomprehensible. Villagers who had been initially charmed by my greetings chastised me for not progressing further in their languages. I was frustrated and hurt by these responses until I began to understand that multilingualism was the norm among a large part of the population and that I was not meeting local expectations. This was the seed of my research.

What did you study in your first project?

I wanted to know who learned second languages, how, when, and why. In the Mandara Mountains, I worked with two groups: the socio-economically dominant Wandala and the mountain dwelling Montagnards. The Wandala were largely monolingual, while the Montagnards regarded multilingual competence as essential and expected to expand their linguistic repertoires throughout their lives. The achievement of “native-likeness” was a non-issue, and proficiency was defined in terms of what one wanted and/or needed to do in a language (e.g., buy/sell in the market, court a young woman, do well in school).

So, how do they become multilingual? What strategies do they use?

Several features of Montagnard social life support the multilingual norm. One is the tradition of out-group marriage that creates bilingual households and fosters early bilingualism. Multilingual interaction is regarded as an opportunity for active participation in second language conversations and a resource for learning new linguistic forms. Loose supervision of children means that they often play with other children who speak another language. Children also routinely carry memorized messages in languages they do not command well or at all.

Have you observed similar behaviors in your second study?

In Maroua, I worked with the Fulbe, most of whom used three languages: a native language (Fulfulde), a language of religious study and practice (Arabic), and a language of secular schooling (French). As Muslims, most Fulbe have some competence in Arabic, that is fluency and accuracy in reproducing the oral and written forms of the Qur’an without the ability to generate new, meaningful utterances. Guided repetition was the primary practice for teaching and learning Arabic in Qur’anic schools and French in secular schools.

What do you mean by guided repetition?

Guided repetition involves modeling by an expert, imitation by a novice, rehearsal by the novice until he or she has mastered the skill, and performance by the novice so that his or her mastery may be assessed by an expert. In each phase, the expert supervises the novice and may provide assistance, evaluation, and/or correction as the novice works toward mastery. The memorization of a fixed body of knowledge may serve as the basis for application to new contexts and materials and the development of new understanding. For example, some Fulbe who have memorized the Qur’an build on this foundation, developing a high degree of competence in Arabic as a second language. Teaching-learning activities that emphasize repetition and memorization are disparaged by many Western educators and researchers, but guided repetition is widely used around the world, in and out of the classroom.

How did your experiences in Cameroon make you reevaluate your own learning strategies? What have you learned about multilingualism at large?

I have been very much influenced by the Montagnards’ assumption that one will continue to expand one’s linguistic repertoire over a lifetime as opportunity and/or need arise and by their orientation that language learning is about connecting with people, showing interest and respect. I have also adopted many useful language learning strategies from them, becoming a language learner who more consciously seeks and uses opportunities for language learning. During the first months of my research with the Fulbe in Maroua, I relied on assistants. A visit with Montagnard friends reminded me that I could and should do better, and in the months that followed I resumed formal instruction in Fulfulde, chatted with people who were not involved in my study and created my own informal field language curriculum. Some days, as I went about my business, I would focus on the use of a particular linguistic form or feature. I also asked my assistants to point out my errors and provide models of correct speech. Even recordings and transcripts became opportunities for language lessons. I did not engage in guided repetition with experts, but I did use audio recordings to train my mouth, learning by heart bits of recorded interaction, and memorizing the texts studied by the children at school.

Thank you, Leslie, for these fascinating insights and good luck with your future fieldwork!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of Cameroon school children waiting for a lesson from Shutterstock (Michal Szymanski).


Moore, L. C. (2009) On communicative competence… in the field. Language & Communication, 29, 244-253.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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