One of the foci of this program will be to explore the various dynamics at work in societies of Africa and the diaspora where colonial, social, and racial pasts have created a linguistic present of great complexity and possibility. Of particular concern are questions surrounding the cultural tranmission and circulation of language varieties and language styles as they occur both on the continent and in societies of the New World. An underlying theme of the program will be the examination of how African languages and African-inspired dialects and varieties of European languages have been perceived, appropriated, made the subject of policies, and more generally become the focus of cultural imaginings both at home and abroad.
The language question in Africa and the diaspora has frequently been fraught with tension and conflict. On the continent, arguments centered on the usefulness of European languages as mediators of both international and inter-ethnic communication have often led to the perpetuation of official status of colonial languages. At the same time, it is clear that the standard varieties of these languages are used by few Africans in the pursuit of their daily economic, social and religious activities. The African experience also generated evidence that teaching children in their mother tongue can be more effective than teaching essential concepts like reading and writing through a foreign (i.e. official European) language. The disjuncture that exists between languages of prestige and practice is growing as education systems deteriorate and informal sector activities, which do not require schooling, become the economic mainstay of large sectors of the urban African population. In North Africa, this same disjuncture exists not only between French and Arabic but also classical and colloquial dialects of Arabic. The emergence of new linguistic forms that combine elements from both European and indigneous languages, and their transmission from mother to child as first languages, further complicates the picture as issues of purity and loss of tradition arise.
The intimate experience of African scholars with these problems-especially scholars from contexts where the dynamics of language competition are still quite fluid-has much to inform those who are coping with parallel situations in the Western world. Creole languages in the Western Hemisphere have often been perceived as less valuable than their standard European languages from which they are partly derived, despite their being the primary mode of expression of peoples and cultures that developed through a history of contact with and resistance to the speakers of those parent languages. The dialect of English spoken by African Americans has clearly suffered the same fate. The ongoing debate over whether this dialect should be used or even recognized in the U.S. educational system (the so-called bilingual or bi- dialectal option) has brought to light a plethora of prejudices and self- limiting opinions about how a language or dialect reflects and contributes to the learning and social advancement of its speakers.