Skip to main content

NALRC hosts conference to inspire African language educators

Center News May 16, 2024
Nearly 100 people gathered in the atrium of the Hamilton Lugar School.
April 2024 African Language Teachers Association conference hosted by the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School’s National African Language Resource Center.

The Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School’s National African Language Resource Center (NALRC) recently hosted the 27th annual conference of the African Language Teachers Association (ALTA), convening more than 100 attendees from across the U.S., Canada, and Africa. The event invites teachers and scholars in African Language education to share innovative and creative research on ways to enhance African language instruction, research, and best practices.

Support for preserving African languages and cultures and transmitting them to the next generation is vital. Personal anecdotes shared by conference presenters showed that even professional African language educators may find it challenging to pass their native language on to their children.

Two women stand in front of a table in the Hamilton Lugar School atrium. Indiana University Linguistics graduate student Ugonna Ahumibe and fellow conference attendee Toyin Olanipekun at the 2024 African Language Teachers Association Conference.

One of the presenters, Indiana University graduate student Ugonna Ahumibe, said that while she was living in Nigeria, she found it “nearly impossible” to transmit her native Igbo to her two daughters. She had limited time with her them due to the demands of work, and the language was not used at their school or by their nanny. She said, “I felt like I didn’t have enough time with my children for them to acquire the language from me naturally. As a student of language, it was almost embarrassing to me.”

Meanwhile, another presenter, Tulane University doctoral student Adebimpe Adegbite said, “I speak Yoruba to my two-year-old son, but when some Yoruba-speaking families in the community hear us, they often say something like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a matter of time until he refuses to speak it anymore.’

Ahumibe and Adegbite were among dozens of presenters who shared research and best practices at the two-and-a-half-day conference at Indiana University in April, based on the theme “African Languages within and beyond the Classroom: Interdisciplinary Perspectives and Multidisciplinary Collaborations.” Event attendees were affiliated with ALTA, a professional membership organization working to advance teaching and research in national languages.

The event was hosted by the Hamilton Lugar School’s National African Language Resource Center (NALRC), a U.S. Department of Education Title VI funded program dedicated to the support of African language educators and learners across the U.S. The NALRC sponsors a wide range of educational and professional activities designed to improve the accessibility and quality of African language instruction. A man and woman stand at a podium presenting NALRC Director Alwiya Omar and Associate Director Kazeem Sanuth at the ALTA conference opening.

Although the NALRC and ALTA are separate entities, they work closely together, said NALRC Associate Director Kazeem Sanuth, “NALRC serves all members of ALTA. Many ALTA members attend the NALRC summer workshops and institutes, which are open to everyone in interested in the instruction of African languages.”

Sanuth said the conference was a success.

It brought together people from different continents – and at least six countries in Africa – to participate in academic and professional conversations related to the teaching of African languages. More papers were presented than at prior conferences, and we were able to have graduate students fully recognized at the conference for their work as well,” he said.

An Interactive Children’s Dictionary for Igbo Language and Culture

headshot Ugonna Ahumibe, Indiana University Linguistics graduate studentIndiana University graduate student Ugonna Ahumibe, said her struggle to transmit her native Igbo to her children inspired the project “An Interactive Children’s Dictionary for Igbo Language and Culture.”

Although Igbo is currently spoken by over 27,000,000 people in Nigeria, it is categorized as “threatened,” since cultural forces are causing the language to die off. Ahumibe said younger generations in Nigeria prefer foreign languages, and many people feel that the ability to speak English is superior, confers higher status, and allows one to be more creative. Despite government efforts to require business to be conducted in Igbo, things did not change.

Ahumibe, who is finishing an M.A. in Linguistics with a concentration in Computational Linguistics, says there are children’s books available in Igbo, but they are not designed with children in mind. “They are unattractive, and the prints are carelessly done, and not colorful.” She said, “If a child saw them against a Cinderella story, they would not choose the Igbo.

To kick-start her children’s language learning, Ahumibe decided to make use of the technology at hand – her phone.

She says, “I asked my children’s grandmother and other relatives who are native speakers to record traditional folktales in Igbo. The children listen to the stories as we drive to and from school. Although in the beginning they couldn’t follow the stories, over time they began to understand and even pick up new words.

To enhance their language learning, Ahumibe was inspired to create an interactive Igbo-English children’s dictionary app as well. Using a classic Igbo folk story, “The Tortoise Marries the Princess,” she selected over a hundred words as a foundation for the dictionary.

Meanwhile, she is leveraging the power of software tools including Fieldworks Language Explorer (FLEx), an integrated set of open-source software tools to help manage linguistic and cultural data; SayMore, a software program designed to build language documentation sources; and MidJourney, an AI image generator. These tools allow her to create culturally relevant images to go along with the story, then integrate audio, video, and photo data. Ahumibe says that the resulting dictionary content can easily be transferred between devices, be formatted for print, etc.

The target audience for the app is children ages 6-12 living outside Igboland, and they hope it will be used by other Igbo language learners, teachers, and researchers. The app is still in the development stage, and Ahumibe and her colleague, Margaret Carpenter, are applying for funding to complete the project, which they anticipate will take another year.

Ahumibe will complete her masters in Linguistics in June and will stay at Indiana University to begin doctoral work in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education this fall. Meanwhile, she hopes to have online dictionary format available by the end of May.

Teaching Yoruba as a minority majority language

headshot Adebimpe Adegbite, Tulane University docctoral studentAdebimpe Adegbite, the father who shared that his community did not understand why he would try to transmit Yoruba to his two-year-old son, is a doctoral student in Linguistic Anthropology at Tulane University. He examined attitudes towards the Yoruba language in Nigeria in his presentation “Teaching Yoruba as a minority majority language,” 

In Nigeria, the national language policy requires that one of the major languages, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, be acquired for each child for the first 6 years of primary education,” said Adegbite. “This looks like wonderful support for indigenous languages on paper, but it is not translated into reality.”

Adegbite conducted research at a school in Ile-Ife, Nigeria with an English-only policy. The participants included 51 students ages seven to thirteen years old whose parents agreed to enroll them in three months of instruction on Yoruba proverbs. Using questionnaires, ethnographic interviews, and conversations, he examined the children’s competence in and use of Yoruba, as well as the attitudes towards the language.

Most of the children (92%) spoke two or more languages, although four spoke only one language, and one child spoke five languages. The monolinguals spoke only English but could understand a bit of Yoruba. All the multilingual students spoke Yoruba and English.

At home, more of the children spoke English (65%) than spoke Yoruba (35%). At school, children reported 95% English use, and 4% Yoruba. In other settings such as markets and places of worship, they reported using 27.5% Yoruba and 72.5% English.

His study showed that within the same individual, language attitude and use varied by setting. Forty-seven percent said Yoruba would be their preferred language to speak at home, 67% would prefer to speak Yoruba at school, and only 39% would prefer to speak it in other places.

Adegbite also noted that since the study was limited to children and parents who consented to take part in three months of Yoruba proverb instruction, their attitudes toward the Yoruba language would be predicted to be positive. He asked, “If the influence of English is still as strong in such a population, what about the overwhelming [number of] prospective participants that showed no interest?”

In conclusion, Adegbite said, While Yoruba is a national language with majority language status in southwest Nigeria, it has a minority language usage by students in this study.”

To preserve the Yoruba language, Adegbite says, In the absence of will by the government to create and/or implement language policies that favor minority (indigenous, heritage, less commonly taught) languages, language stakeholders at home (parents, children, family members), school (teachers and administrators), and other places (business owners, religious leaders, etc.) can unite to facilitate language revitalization and/or maintenance.”

Transforming Swahili Language Instruction

Peter Mwangi, assistant professor of instruction in Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies’ presentation addressed key challenges in teaching Swahili). He said the issues of low enrollment and a lack of standards-based and level-appropriate instructional materials were interrelated. He said that traditionally, Swahili language resources had been “voluminous, complex, expensive, and outdated.” Man presenting in classroom at desk reading Indiana University Northwestern University Visiting Assistant Professor Peter Mwangi presents at the April 2024 African Language Teachers Association conference.

Mwangi shared data from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, indicating that 63% of students skipped buying or renting textbooks, and 19% of students chose classes based on their course materials cost. As a result, he realized that access to low-cost, high-quality textbooks could be key to increasing enrollments.

Over the course of two summers, Mwangi and his colleagues developed a comprehensive end-of-sequence assessment for elementary Swahili, then designed listening and writing curricula to prepare students for the assessment. The two professional development programs that culminated in these assessment and curricula projects were offered by the University of Chicago’s Language Center through the Mellon Foundation Grant. He then made the material available as an Open Education Resource (OER). The result? “Enrollment in Swahili courses increased. We ended up adding another section, and within two hours, it was full,” said Mwangi.

His advice to other educators was clear. “Having high-quality and effective LCTL Open Education Resources (OERs) based on current trends in test designs and curriculum developments can significantly enhance enrollments in our respective African languages.”

Showcasing Indiana University’s support for African Languages

Efforts to maintaining and revitalize African Language education are at the heart of the collaborations between ALTA and IU’s NALRC. Although the annual ALTA conference was part of the larger National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages conference for decades, it has been held independently since 2021. When asked about this change, NALRC’s Sanuth said that although other less commonly taught languages share a similar vision and mission, African language programs are unique.

“Many have acute shortages of enrollment, resources, research, and training opportunities,” he said. “By holding our own conference, ALTA can localize the conversation to what is related to African languages alone, which may range from teacher training to community building to mentorship. We’re trying to create opportunities for the expansion of research on African languages and boost instruction at institutions across the country.”

Holding a separate conference has also allowed the event to take place on university campuses, instead of hotel conference centers. “Hosting the event at the IU Hamilton Lugar School also highlighted the university’s leadership in language education,” Sanuth said. “It gave us an opportunity to showcase the school’s commitment to language instruction and be able to let conference attendees see the support that African language teaching gets here on IU’s campus. Everyone left with the feeling that IU has support for African languages and the NALRC.”

More stories