SOAS University of London

Learning and Teaching Excellence

Decolonization through language: The importance of language learning and teaching for postcolonial academia

Alena Rettová

Date: 10 May 2017Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 10 May 2017Time: 6:15 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: KLT

Type of Event: Talk


Language learning and teaching is experiencing a steady decline in the UK, and perhaps worldwide. All humanities are affected by this decline, but degrees that incorporate the slow and tortuous process of foreign-language acquisition are the most vulnerable ones in this social and economic climate. This seminar brings the issue of language teaching and learning into connection with the political debates on how the former colonial powers deal with their national histories of colonialism. In academia, these debates translate into questioning the “whiteness” of academic curricula and campaigns for the “decolonizing of SOAS”. In their current formulations, these campaigns entirely overlook the fact that language is a powerful tool of exclusion and domination. The linguistic practice of much postcolonial theory, which only speaks in the language of the metropolis, is thus complicit in sustaining the political domination, economic power, and institutionalized racism that privilege certain groups of people and disempower others. A critical step forward in the decolonization process is to address this linguistic blindness of postcolonial studies. Language learning then becomes an effective means of resistance to mental colonization and its epistemic violence. 

Gaining linguistic competence in an African language opens up a wide array of discourses that articulate the intellectual and political concerns of African communities. Research involving these critical debates enhances its capacity to have a transformative effect on these communities, in raising critical awareness, which is itself a precondition for democracy and social development. But beyond research relevance or political impact, being proficient in an African language is a key asset in any practical engagement in African communities, because lacking language skills is an insurmountable barrier in building trust and establishing productive social relationships. SOAS students with work experience in African countries report feeling “unprepared”, even “betrayed” by their work agencies for failing to provide them with training in the local language. This obviously also applies to the university, and especially to SOAS, an institution that boasts its distinctive language-based scholarship. Arriving at university, students may favour quick attainment of practical knowledge that unfolds prospects of a profitable employment upon graduation. However, by allowing them to graduate without competence in a foreign language, we let them down in two fundamental respects: we fail to provide them with key professional skills and we also block the challenge to one’s self and one’s culture that is posed by another culture - which is the true sense of “decolonization”.

About the Speaker

Alena Rettová is Reader in Swahili Literature and African Philosophy at SOAS, University of London. She is the author of Afrophone Philosophies: Reality and Challenge (2007) and Chanter l'existence: La poésie de Sando Marteau et ses horizons philosophiques (2013). She has also co-authored, with Kenyan poet Abdilatif Abdalla, a translation of Václav Havel's play Vernisáž into Swahili (Uzinduzi, 2005). She is Winner of the 2015 SOAS Director's Teaching Prize.

Further Information

The talk will be followed by a discussion and Q & A about the issues raised and how they relate to teaching and research at SOAS.

To register attendance for the seminar, please fill in our online application form.

Organiser: LTD (Learning & Teaching Development)

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