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date: 26 May 2018

Toward a Sociolinguistics of Modern Sub-Saharan African South–South Migrations

Summary and Keywords

Despite their large demographic size, intra-continental African migrations have hardly been taken into account in the theorizing on migration in transnational studies and related fields. Research questions have been framed predominantly from a South-to-North perspective on population movements. This may be a consequence of the fact that the extent and complexity of modern population movements and contacts within Africa are hard to assess, owing mainly to lack of reliable data. For sociolinguists the challenge is even greater, partly because of the spotty knowledge of linguistic diversity in the continent and the scarcity of adequate sociolinguistic descriptions of the ways in which Africans manage their language repertoires. Despite these limitations, a sociolinguistics of intra-continental African migrations will contribute significantly to a better understanding of the conditions, nature, and periodicity of population contacts and interactional dynamics. It will help explain why geographic mobility entails reshaping sociocultural practices, including the language repertoires of both the migrants and the people they come in contact with. Moreover, the peculiarity of African economies, which rely heavily on informal non-institutionalized practices, prompts a rethinking of assumptions regarding the acquisition of the host country’s language(s) as the primary facilitator of the migrants’ socioeconomic inclusion. A sociolinguistic understanding of migrations within Africa can help to formulate new questions and enrich the complex pictures that the study of other parts of the world has already shaped.

Keywords: migration, sociolinguistics, African languages, sub-Saharan Africa, linguistic diversity, population contact

1. Language-Driven Questions on Continental African Migrations

Writing an informative and sound article on continental sub-Saharan African migrations presents numerous challenges and pitfalls, more so when the subject matter is approached from the point of view of language dynamics. The first challenge has to do with the political, economic, sociological, and environmental heterogeneity of the continent, which bears differentially on population contacts and therefore language dynamics. The second challenge, partially related to the first one, is the scarcity of available research on contemporary migrations within Africa. Data on national and international population movements are crucially missing, as unanimously pointed out by Africanists, such as Berriane and de Haas (2012). Although a few quantitative surveys on migrations have been conducted by supranational agencies such as the World Bank or the African Development Bank, the type of data they produce often doesn’t help understand the ways in which migrations impact language dynamics, for reasons explained in section 2. Any attempt to present an informed and exhaustive account of the ways in which migrations affect languages and how this can be used within Africa is also hampered by the spotty knowledge of the linguistic diversity of the continent (Lüpke & Storch, 2013); the inaccuracy of the early descriptions and codification of African languages, which created arbitrary linguistic and sociocultural boundaries (Makoni, Brutt-Griffler, & Mashiri, 2007) and gave rise to artificially constructed languages and ethnicities (Harries, 1988; Irvine, 2008); and the scarcity of adequate sociolinguistic descriptions of the ways in which African speakers manage their language repertoires in different interactional settings and sociocultural ecologies. Despite these limitations, ethnographically and historically informed models of language contacts developed for other ecologies have proved to be useful to raising research questions relevant to the African continent.

One question is about the kinds of data sociolinguists need in order to better understand the linguistic consequences of population contact, whether of people who move or those who are in contact with the latter. Although partial, the different surveys give us a broad picture of human mobility within the continent and, more importantly, help to formulate research questions.

Although unanimously considered as underestimating the scale of migrations within the continent, due to their lack of reliability, the few available statistics are nevertheless informative, as they challenge the “grand narrative” on African migrations produced in the global North. In their report commissioned by the World Bank and the African Development Bank, Ratha et al. (2011, pp. 18–19) claim that 65% of sub-Saharans migrate within their sub-regions. West African intraregional migrations are slightly higher than their southern African counterparts, estimated at 70% and 66% respectively. These statistics appear to dispute ideologically loaded conceptions of African nations as predominantly sending countries and of Africans as all aspiring to the greener pastures of the global North (Bakewell, 2009). Such framing is fostered by and feeds European and North American nationalist discourses whose ideological apparatus draws its inspiration from a long legacy of racialized and racist discourse. This state of affairs prompts scholars of migration to be cautious, making sure that their research agendas are driven by sound empirical and theoretical questions emerging from the ground rather than by policy-driven agendas. These agendas explain in part the imbalance in the production of knowledge on international migration (Melde et al., 2014) and contribute to the distorted image of African migrations broadcast by the media (De Haas, 2008) and exploited by politicians of the global North.

Research on South-North migrations is overrepresented in migration studies in comparison to that of their South-South counterparts, despite the demographic strength of the latter. Funding agencies of the North display little interest in projects on migrations that do not directly impact European or North American societies (Berriane & de Haas, 2012; Graw & Schielke, 2012). The reason for this bias lies in the ways in which migration has been predominantly framed, since WWII, as an economic and therefore political matter, with governments of the North constructing migrants primarily, if not exclusively, as economic actors and manpower rather than full-fledged participants in a host polity (Haus, 2001; Vigouroux, 2017). The 20th century over-politicization of migration (Landau, 2006) shaped part of the scholarship produced on the latter and its consumption by policymakers. For instance, because societies of the North are predominantly welfare states, a large body of work focuses on whether or not migrants draw on public services and represent a fiscal burden to host societies and whether they have an impact on local (i.e., non-migrant) workers’ wages (Razin & Sadka, 2000; Cohen & Razin, 2008; Harell et al., 2012).

In addition, research on intra-continental African migrations hasn’t really shaped, let alone influenced, the research paradigms and questions addressed in the heterogeneous fields of migration and transnational studies, despite their long tradition of scholarship (Mafukidze, 2006). According to Bilger and Kraler (2005), following Wallerstein (2004), this limited transversal work reflects the development of social sciences in the 19th century, which fostered epistemological divisions between disciplines deemed universalistic (geography, sociology, economics, and political sciences) and those, like anthropology and area studies, considered particularistic. These disciplinary distinctions also ratified the ideological constructions of the world into distinctive evolutionary poles, with modernity, epitomized by Europe, on one side, and on the other, tradition (if not “backwardness”), represented by Africa (among others). This article argues that migration patterns within Africa do not strikingly differ from migrations elsewhere. Only some patterns are more prevalent in Africa. Scholarship on African migrations can contribute greatly to migration studies in general by asking new research questions and contributing to new methodologies.

Although many Africanists working on migrations advocate for a multidisciplinary approach to the subject matter (e.g., Kane & Leedy, 2013), the linguistic dimension of population movements has hardly been considered. This missing link may well have to do with the arbitrary division of disciplines within academia. It also reflects the fact that nonlinguists don’t foresee how a sociolinguistic perspective can help raise new questions and add to the complex picture that other disciplines have already helped draw.

This article aims to highlight, however modestly, the methodological and theoretical relevance of language-driven questions regarding intra-continental African migrations. The reverse observation is also true for the scholarship produced by linguists on migration. As aptly highlighted by Mufwene (2018), any language-oriented work on migration requires of linguists an interdisciplinary approach to account for (socio)linguistic dynamics in contact settings. As shown in the reference list of this article, the relevant disciplines include anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, and sociology.

The article begins with a review of the institutional categories according to which migrants are usually defined in the scholarly literature, assessing the extent to which they are adequate in explaining population movements and contacts and their differing linguistic outcomes. The section that follows reflects on the scholarly tradition that distinguishes between rural and urban migrations. The opposition usually rests on the assumption that cities are highly multilingual settings compared to rural areas, which are assumed to be linguistically homogeneous.

The article argues that mobility between rural and urban settings should be approached as a continuum and as constructed from highly diverse pathways that shape migrants’ language repertoires and shows that societal multilingualism in urban and rural areas differs in degree but not in kind. Section 4, Gendered Population Contacts and Language Dynamics, articulates how gender affects population contact and language spread by examining the ways in which, for example, Lingala, a major lingua franca of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been learned by some Black South African women who socialize with DRC migrants. It also explains the relevance of approaching migration from the point of view of the host populations by analyzing the ways in which their language repertoires are restructured by their interactions with the migrants. Finally, the article illustrates how economic practices play a crucial role in the spread of languages in contact settings. The focus on informal economy is informed by its importance both in sub-Saharan economies and in the economic practices of migrants moving within the continent.

2. Challenging Our Analytical Categories and Apparatus

As is evident from the 2010 glossary of international migration produced by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the scholarly literature, migration is usually described according to the type of population movements: circular, labor, forced, voluntary, illegal, etc. As for the migrants, their categorization depends on a number of defining features, such as types of mobility, skills, and administrative status in the host society, among others. For instance, migrants whose mobility is driven by political conflicts and prosecution are usually referred to as refugees and asylum seekers. (For an analysis of the administrative category refugee, see Zetter, 1991.) Migrants whose mobility is motivated by economic reasons are categorized as economic migrants, whereas those who escape natural disasters such as droughts, earthquakes, and famine are classified as environmentally displaced persons. Distinctions are made, and a social hierarchy between migrants is produced along a high-, semi-, and low-skill continuum, often based on fuzzy definitions of what counts as skills and who qualifies in which category (Vigouroux, 2017). Migrants whose mobility is inscribed within the institutional framework established by (host) states are defined as documented or legal, unlike their counterparts classified as undocumented or illegal (Baldwin-Edwards, 2008).

Although these etic categories may be useful to policymakers (Orsi, 2016), they are not always relevant to explaining the dynamics of language contacts and interactional practices in contact settings. Moreover, they can obscure the latter if taken for granted without a thorough assessment of the conditions, nature, and periodicity of population contacts. This observation is explained here by discussing refugee, a category often used to describe migrants within sub-Saharan African countries, as they constitute the largest proportion on the continent.

According to a 2015 UNHRC report, sub-Saharan Africa hosts the highest number of refugees, with 4.4 million people, of whom 80% of them come from Somalia, South Sudan, DRC, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Some of these countries, such as DRC, not only produce refugees but also host a large number of them. The same report ranks DRC as the ninth hosting-refugee country, with its migrants coming predominantly from Rwanda (214,400), South Sudan (62,400), the Central African Republic, and Burundi. With an official number of 1.1 million people, Somalis constitute the third largest refugee group in the world after Syrians (4.9 million) and Afghans (2.7 million). In 2015, Kenya and Ethiopia hosted the highest number of Somali refugees, with 417,900 and 256,700 respectively (UNHRC, 2015). The subject matter of refugees prompts documentation of the ways in which military conflicts and the kind of population movements and contacts they trigger heavily bear on language dynamics in Africa as elsewhere. (For an informative account of the role of the 1991–2002 civil war in the spread of Krio in Sierra Leone, see Albaugh, 2018.)

Although the category refugee captures the conditions under which individuals or groups of populations left their countries of origin and the lengthy and burdensome administrative procedures they were subjected to at the receiving end of their geographic trajectory, it doesn’t provide an explanatory framework for understanding patterns of population contacts. For instance, some refugees reside in camps, often located at the outskirt of a city or village (Turner, 2016), while others, like the sub-Saharan African migrants investigated in Cape Town (Vigouroux, 2003), are scattered among the local population.

Ethnographic work highlights the fact that the language practices of those classified as refugees do not differ from those who are not. Their patterns of interaction are independent of their administrative status. Because refugee status in South Africa gives migrants the right to seek employment and to study, one could possibly argue that refugees may have better access to local employment than, for instance, undocumented migrants and therefore are likely to have greater opportunities to interact with locals. The reality on the ground shows that access to employment is often based on the social capital (Bourdieu, 1986) the migrant possesses rather than on the legal formality of a work permit.

For those residing in refugee camps, their patterns of interaction depend on a number of factors. Before reviewing some of them, it is important to underscore the fact that a refugee camp, like any physical, geographic location, should not be posited independent of the social and linguistic practices that help define it. As long argued by geographers such as Lefebvre (1974) and Massey (1995), a physical space constructs social practices and is simultaneously constructed by them (Johnstone, 2010; Mufwene & Vigouroux, 2017). In other words, a geographic space does not exist outside the people who inhabit it. As argued by Ramadan (2013, p. 70), the “triad of camps, refugees and the relations between them continue to reproduce each other over time.”

Temporality is also an important feature of refugee camps from both institutional and on-the ground perspectives. Governments and supra-national agencies in charge of refugees have historically envisioned the camps as temporary settlements (Turner, 2016). Many refugees have incorporated this sense of temporariness, as they usually project their lives in camps as transitory, longing to resettle in their home countries or to move out and reunite with family members living in other countries. This temporariness can shape the refugees’ choice to not acquire the language(s) of the host population.

Social and spatial organization within the camps impinges on language dynamics. As noted by Mufwene (2001), “population structure” bears heavily on patterns of interactions and linguistic structures. Populations in refugee camps are often highly heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity, social class, political allegiance, and social status (Voutira & Harrell-Bong, 1995). Boateng (2010) reports that Liberian women in the Buduburam camp in Ghana prefer to interact and associate with fellow Liberians, especially from the same ethnic group, than with refugees from different countries or ethnic groups. Jansen (2016) documents the extent to which trading activities within the Kakuma camp in Kenya are organized according to ethnicity. But ethnic affinity may not favor good relationships, since business competition may arise within a group, as in the case of Somalis in the Dadaab camp in Northern Kenya (Perouse de Montclos & Mwangi Kagwanja, 2000). For various reasons that must be investigated ethnographically, some refugees are more willing to seek inclusion within the camp than others who prefer to avoid social relations with fellow refugees. Gender also shapes social relationships within the camp and, more generally, the experience of being a refugee, as reported by Ager et al. (1995) in their study of Mozambican women and men living in Chiumbangame and Mwawa, in Malawi. For instance, they document how women’s income, access to health care or food rations, and social capital are far lower than men’s.

Equally important for understanding migrants’ language patterns is the camps’ openness to the outside world. Refugees’ mobility outside the camp can be restrained, although migrants find ways to travel to nearby towns and cities (Jansen, 2016). The very fact that camps are often located in secluded areas can impede refugees’ regular contacts with the host population. As documented in linguistics, sporadic contacts do not favor the emergence of a full-fledged contact variety or the acquisition by a group of the language of another ethno-linguistic group.

In some cases, the migrants’ lack of competence in the host population’s language(s) is framed as a barrier to interactions with the locals. This is the case of the Liberian women of the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana interviewed by Boateng (2010). They explain how reluctant they are to travel by bus to the nearby village, as they do not understand the bus money collector when he speaks to them in Twi. Limited trade interactions do indeed occur between Ghanaians and the Liberian women when the former come to the camp to sell their goods. However, because Boateng (2010) does not document these interactions, it remains to be determined to what extent a mixed code has developed over the years or whether English as part of her interviewees’ language repertoire is a resourceful language in the local ecology.

Boateng argues that the Liberian women’s lack of investment in learning Twi is related to the fact that they have constructed their settlement in the camp as temporary, despite their long-term residence there. Although I do not dispute this claim, I believe that they also may never have experienced social or economic pressure to learn it. The language resources they deploy while interacting with Ghanaian traders, for instance, seem to be sufficient for them to satisfy their communicative needs. On the other end of the language pattern spectrum, close genetic and/or typological kinship between the languages spoken by the refugees and the members of the local population appear to facilitate interactions, such as between the Hutu refugees in the Kigoma region (Western Tanzania) and the local WaHa, with whom they also intermarry (Malkki, 1995).

Ethnographic studies focusing on language practices within refugee camps in Africa still need to be undertaken. They will help us understand to what extent camps as multi-scalar social organizations (including schools, churches, markets, healthcare facilities, etc.) hosting populations that are linguistically, socially, and demographically heterogeneous (including the foreign aid workers) shape language practices in (dis)similar ways. They may be compared with other contact ecologies, such as cities. It will also help assess the relevance of refugee as an analytically relevant category for a fine-grained description of language practices in migration contexts.

3. The Internal–International Migration Continuum

The field of migration studies has been generally split into internal and international migrations, with few cross-references and with virtually no methodological and theoretical dialogue between the two. The umbrella term migration has increasingly been used in reference to international migration, although internal population movements outnumber by far their international counterparts (Shimeles, 2010). As already suggested, it appears that this opposition has been triggered by the increasing politicization of the phenomenon of migration, which in turn has shaped scholars’ research agendas. In addition, internal migration patterns are hard to assess in sub-Saharan Africa not only because of the lack of data but also because the concept of “urban” takes on varying forms in different countries (Brauw et al., 2014, p. 34).

Some researchers have disputed the scholarly distinction between internal and international migrations, arguing that it is not clear-cut, especially because the two kinds of population movements appear to be “generated by similar forces” (King & Skeldon, 2010, p. 1622). The relevance of administrative boundaries to sociolinguistic accounts for language dynamics is also questionable, as pointed out by Kerswill (2006). It is even more so in the African context, where national borders are fairly recent political constructions, historically mapped out and enforced by the colonial administrations in defiance or simple ignorance of the traditional indigenous sociopolitical organizations (Adepoju, 1998) and linguistic boundaries. In addition, because no language testing policy has been implemented to regiment international migrations in sub-Saharan Africa, unlike in the global North (Extra et al., 2009; Hogan-Brun et al., 2009; Piller, 2001), the migrants’ geographic mobility and right of access do not depend on their competence in the language(s) of their host countries.

Internal mobility in Africa has generally been approached through the lens of rural versus urban migrations. Focusing on labor migrations, scholars have claimed that they have been a major driving force in the urbanization process in both colonial and post-Independence Africa (Beauchemin & Bocquier, 2004; Gugler, 1991; Jamal & Weeks, 1988). According to Africanist historian Coquery-Vidrovitch (2005), disconnecting rural and urban socioeconomic and cultural spaces would be misleading methodologically, since migrants maintain strong ties with their communities of origin, engaged in what Gugler (1991) describes as “dual-commitment.”

This article will show that these connections shape the language practices and linguistic structures of both the migrants and their host communities. Coquery-Vidrovitch (1991) also rightly warns us against this dichotomous ahistorical approach, which is largely rooted in colonial ideology. The latter constructs urban centers as loci of modernity and change, in contrast with rural areas, which are described as untouched by outside influences, rooted in traditions, and inherently immutable. Interestingly, many African urbanites have also espoused this colonial legacy, disparaging rural people as “backward” and unsophisticated, as is evident from the South African case discussed here.

The linguistic evidence from Zimbabwe provided by Makoni et al. (2007) shows the extent to which rural and urban Zimbabweans of Malawian origin have developed highly diverse and fluid language repertoires, including such language resources as chiShona, chiChewa, chiNyanja, English, and slang, the specific number varying from one speaker to another. The authors’ conclusions dispute the received idea that because cities are dense language contact zones they are more likely to see the emergence of contact languages than rural settings, which are often mischaracterized as linguistically homogeneous. Their data show that city dwellers are not more prone to develop a mixed language repertoire than their rural counterparts. Multilingualism in Harare, the capital city, differs in degree but not in kind from its surrounding rural areas. More ethnographically informed work needs to be conducted to show the extent to which similar conclusions can be reached for other sub-Saharan ecologies. From a methodological perspective, it implies analyzing language practices from the point of view of a speaker on the move within and outside the city and of the temporalities attached to their mobility.

Discussing possible linguistic outcomes of population movements between rural and urban settings, Dyers (2009) shows how amajoin, an isiXhosa-based slang variety developed in the townships of Cape Town, has been spread to the rural areas of the Eastern Cape by city youngsters who visit their home villages regularly. In fact the term amajoin, a combination of the isiXhosa noun class prefix ama- and the English verb join, indexes the bridging function of the speakers of the language and, by extension, of the variety itself; it means ‘those who join or link the cities with the rural areas.’ Without given up their local variety, Eastern Cape rural teenagers add amajoin to their language repertoire.

The spread of amajoin highlights the crucial role played by peer-interactions in the speakers’ acquisition of new linguistic resources (Lüpke, 2013). When, in turn, Eastern Cape youngsters migrate to Cape Town, they favor amajoin over their rural variety in order to blend into their new urban environment. In blending (a notion I prefer to that of integration), the speakers’ distance themselves from the “backwardness” stereotypically associated with rural people. Note also that the disparagement of rural dwellers clashes with the assumption that rural isiXhosa is “purer” and “deeper” than its urban counterpart. As illustrated in the literature, mobility often entails the reconfiguration of language indexicalities (Büscher et al., 2013; Vigouroux, 2008b). In the case discussed here, Eastern Cape township youngsters use rural isiXhosa to index respect to their elders and “perform certain cultural practices” (Dyers, 2009, p. 260).

King and Skeldon’s (2010) typology of population movements provides a comprehensive picture of the inter-linkages between internal and international migrations; this typology can be useful for linguists interested in understanding how different types of mobility affect individuals’ language practices and repertoires. The authors identify 15 different pathways or linkages and sequencings of internal and international migrations (p. 1622). These include internal population movements, such as between provinces A and B within country X (e.g., XA-rural to XB-rural or XA-rural to XB-urban or XA-urban to XB-urban), as well as multiple internal mobilities across international spaces, such as within country X (e.g., X-rural to X-urban and then migration to another X-urban), followed by internal migration to country Y (e.g., X-urban to Y-urban), followed by multiple mobilities within Y (e.g., Y-urban to Y-rural or Y-urban to Y-urban). Because population movements are strongly determined by road infrastructures and transportation systems (e.g., train, buses, airplanes), cities often constitute places of transit for both the migrants’ international departure and their arrival. Taking into account pathways of mobility prompts us to inscribe migrants within the spatiotemporal and social history of their migratory journeys. From a linguistic point of view, this implies shifting our analytical and methodological gaze from a “linguistic monolithic approach” (i.e., treating languages and communities as discreet and bounded) to that of a communicative repertoire (Blommaert, 2009; Busch, 2012; Rymes, 2014). An analysis of repertoires inscribes speakers in the history of their communicative acts and social encounters, as well as inscribing their linguistic resources in that of the communicative functions they help perform. Because they can only be assessed in communicative context, as illustrated by Makoni et al. (2007), repertoires cannot be accounted for through surveys which ask the migrants to list the “languages” they “speak”, regardless of whether one must interpret “speak” as involving fluency or not (see Juffermans, 2015, Chap. 1).

The following example taken from my own research on francophone Africans in Cape Town serves to illustrate how migratory journeys shape the migrants’ linguistic representations. In the late 1990s, I conducted a series of interviews where I asked the migrants questions about their relationships with the local population and about their disposition to learn any of the three named languages spoken in Cape Town: English, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans. My sample was fairly large by ethnographic standards, as it involved around 200 people coming from former Belgian and French exploitation colonies (Vigouroux, 2003). Although the discourse on English as an “easy language without grammar” was fairly common among my respondents, that on the English varieties spoken in Cape Town was particularly striking. They were racialized and ranked according to the social stratification inherited from the apartheid regime (White, Colored, and Black). Thus, the English spoken by white South Africans (whether Afrikaners or of British descent) was ranked the highest and often referred to as “real English.” The variety spoken by Colored people was ranked lower, because it was generally considered to be “too much influenced by Afrikaans.” At the bottom of the hierarchy was the variety spoken by black South Africans, considered as “poor” if not “incompetent.” Interestingly, no English variety was associated with Indian South Africans (classified as a distinct racial category in the apartheid system), who were lumped together with the Colored. The respondents’ racio-linguistic ideology was shared across a wide spectrum of the migrants coming from different ethnocultural African backgrounds. My ethnographic fieldwork revealed that their socialization with South Africans, especially the whites, was rather limited. The ranking may also reflect the way in which the African black migrants position themselves in relation to black South Africans.

Overall, the respondents’ linguistic representations illustrate the process of “iconization” (Irvine & Gal, 2000), according to which language varieties are linked to and appear to resemble the (racial) image of the speakers on the model: people speak a white English variety because they are white. Comparing the migratory trajectories of these respondents with that of those who didn’t think along racial lines and ranked English varieties according to other ideologically constructed social stratifications, I noticed that the latter had experienced the diversity of English language prior to setting foot in South Africa. It was particularly the case of Rwandan and Burundian refugees in the late 1990s whose journey to South Africa had spanned over several years (two to five), punctuated by shorter or longer periods spent in refugee camps in Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, and Mozambique. Because they had been in contact (even passively) with different English varieties during their journeys, they tended to associate them with regional rather than racial variation. Since their socialization in South Africa was, at the time of the interviews, not radically different from that of the respondents mentioned earlier, it appears that their linguistic representations were shaped prior to their experience in South Africa. A follow-up study would make it possible to assess the extent to which patterns of socialization in Cape Town have reshaped the respondents’ language ideologies and representations, 20 years later.

4. Gendered Population Contacts and Language Dynamics

Issues of language and migration should not only focus on the restructuring of migrants’ communicative repertoires but also take into account that of members of the host populations who are in contact with the migrants. To my knowledge, little work has been done on this facet of migration. In an unpublished work, I analyze how Lingala has been spreading among young Black female South Africans in Cape Town. This evolution must be inserted in the broader history of Congolese (DRC) migration to South Africa, which has proceeded in several waves since the mid-1980s. Significant demographic changes have taken place over the years (Vigouroux, 2008b).

Based on my fieldwork, the Congolese migrants can be divided into overlapping categories including but not limited to political allegiance (e.g., those in favor of the current president Joseph Kabila versus his opponents), social class (e.g., successful business people or highly educated migrants versus the aventuriers), and regional origin, especially the Lingala-speaking Kinois (from Kinshasa) versus speakers of Swahili, Kikongo, or Ciluba from other provinces. Unlike many of their other African counterparts (e.g., Senegalese, Malians, and Zimbabweans), the young Kinois have been highly visible in Cape Town nightlife, filling the nightclubs and cafés on Long Street, the heart of Cape Town club life, and dancing to the Congolese beat at Chez Ntemba, a Congolese-owned nightclub. These young, well-dressed, and often flamboyant men, called Sapeurs (Gandoulou, 1989), have become highly praised dating material for some segments of the young Black South African females who have learned how to dance Ndombolo and other trendy Congolese dances. Sustained interactions and the desire to associate with the kind of life these young urbanites embody have led some of these women to acquire Lingala. Gender dynamics seem to play a significant part in socialization and, by extension, language acquisition here. On the other hand, my ethnographic fieldwork shows Congolese women’s strong reluctance to associate romantically with black South African men. Male Xhosa–female Congolese couples in Cape Town are extremely rare compared to female Xhosa–male Congolese relationships.

The role of gender (and sexuality) in fostering language spread in Africa at the societal and individual levels deserves our attention at a time when female migration is on the rise on the continent (Adepoju, 2004). Lüpke (2013) examines the ways in which different kinds of female mobilities, such as exogynous marriage and child fostering in Senegal, trigger the reshuffling of female in-migrants’ language repertoires and add a new layer to the multilingualism to their relocating areas. “Depending on lineage type and functions of marriage in a given society” (Lüpke, 2013, p. 35), divorces may also impact individual and social multilingualism, as female divorcees often return to their families, often leaving one ethnolinguistic area for another.

5. Migrants, Forms of Capital, and Socioeconomic Mobility: Ethnographic Evidence From Cape Town

A deeply entrenched assumption in the literature on migration is the correlation between migrants’ competence in the host country’s language(s) and their likelihood of being integrated into its economic system. In other words, migrants who speak or learn the language(s) of their new socioeconomic ecology “well” are presumably more competitive on the local job market than those who do not. Many quantitative studies conducted by economists in the Global North seem to corroborate this correlation (e.g., Chiswick, 1991; Dustmann, 1994; Bloom & Grenier, 1996). In the case described by Hurst (2014) of Africans who relocated to South Africa as academics, it is not only the migrants’ linguistic capital (English) that played a role in their access to the local academic market but also their institutionalized cultural capital (i.e., tertiary education degrees) that they all acquired in North America or Europe, except for two of her interviewees. As argued by Bourdieu (1986), the convertibility rate of institutionalized cultural capital is not based on the actual competence of the capital bearers but on the symbolic capital a degree carries. In other words, an MA or a PhD earned in North America or Europe (still) carries more weight on the South African academic market than one earned in Uganda or Malawi. As is indeed evident from Hurst’s case studies, the linguistic capital may not be the only factor bearing on the migrants’ access to their targeted labor market.

The question is to what extent the correlation between language competence and economic integration—based on formalized economic systems with highly regulated labor markets—reflects African migrants’ experience in the overwhelmingly informal economies of the continent. This is particularly relevant given the fact that the migrants moving within the continent tend generally to be “less skilled” (especially because they do not have a tertiary degree) than those migrating to Europe or North America (Mumpasi Lututala, 2014). Do African migrants frame their lack of proficiency in the language(s) of their host economy as a potential barrier to their economic or social adjustment? Is the “ideology of the standard” that may impede non-native speakers’ access to jobs in European or American contexts (e.g., Campbell & Roberts, 2007; Gumperz, 1982; Jupp et al., 1982; Roberts, 2012) relevant to African settings? I show below that the data I collected during discontinuous ethnographic fieldworks in Cape Town (1996–2016) shed light on some of these issues.

In their narratives on their work trajectories, non-educated Congolese migrants usually do not mention lack of proficiency in English or any other local languages (e.g., Afrikaans and isiXhosa) as a potential barrier to their economic adjustment in South Africa. This is in sharp contrast with those of educated or professional Congolese, who are more likely to rationalize their misfortunes on the local job market by invoking their lack of oral or written proficiency in English. For instance, Elise, quoted below, was trained as a nurse in Lubumbashi:

Elise: je pensais que quand on allait – dès qu’on a- arrive ici – ça sera comme chez nous – vous passez – vous avez votre diplôme – vous passez dans dans un hôpital ou dans un département –médical – on vous fait - vous passez l’examen – après l’examen si vous réussissez – vous êtes vous vous vous vous mettez à travailler – je savais pas que ça devait être si compliqué aller mettre les cachets à Pretoria (. . .) il faut écrire – je suis pas encore en mesure d’écrire l’anglais correctement – tu vois ça c’est le problème

I thought that when we came – as soon as we c- came here – it will be like at home – you go – you have your degree – you go to to a hospital or to a medical department – medical – they make you – you sit for the exam – after the exam if you pass [it] – you are you you you you start working – I didn´t know that it had to be so complicated go put stamps in Pretoria (. . .) you have to write – I am not able to write English correctly – you see this it’s the problem

One may argue here that, unlike their non-educated counterparts, educated migrants are likely to compete for jobs that require English proficiency and therefore feel a greater pressure to acquire this language of the dominant economy. Although that may well be the case, I believe it is only part of the story. Without underestimating the effect of language competence on the migrants’ socioeconomic mobility, I suggest we analyze this discourse also as part of language ideologies that (educated) speakers have internalized throughout the school system. For instance, in the former French and Belgian African colonies, where French remains the primary if not the only medium of instruction, the acquisition of the formal colonial language is still construed as an asset to climb the socioeconomic ladder, although the language no longer offers this privilege in countries like DRC. Thus, there is a clear disjunction in equating language as symbolic capital with language as economic capital. The conversion rate from one form of capital to the other appears to be very low.

In Cape Town, the migrants’ perceptions of English as economic capital vary according to their exposure to the local labor market and the duration of their stay in the host country (Vigouroux, 2008c). Those who have not (yet) been directly confronted with the harsh local labor market, such as the self-employed or freshly arrived migrants, tend to see the acquisition of English as an asset in South Africa (Vigouroux, 2013). In contrast, those who have experienced difficulties in accessing jobs or who have been underemployed tend to rationalize their misfortune by invoking their status as foreigners. It is hard to know to what extent people have been barred from jobs based on the fact that they are non-locals, especially in an economy where the national unemployment rate is close to 30% (South African 2011 census).

Note that the “linguistic habitus” (Bourdieu, 1977) partly shapes educated Congolese’s language learning trajectories in Cape Town (De Costa, 2010; Juffermans & Tavares, 2017). For instance, those who attend free ESL classes are predominantly those who had been schooled the longest and perceived French in DRC as an institutionalized capital. They think that substituting English for French will solve their employment problem. On the other hand, those who are less or non-educated have a more pragmatic approach to English learning. As my consultant Christian sums it up, une langue ça s’apprend (‘a language, you learn it’). According to him, one need not learn a language through classes; it is eventually acquired naturalistically, through regular interactions with its speakers. I believe this approach reflects the language habitus of multilingual speakers in DRC and elsewhere in Africa whose experience of language acquisition, involving various indigenous languages, has typically been naturalistic.

The migrants who chose not to attend ESL classes often frame their work experience as an English-learning process as well, even when the jobs they get barely require verbal communication. This is the case for Ben, who works as a trolley boy in the parking lot of a local supermarket:

On a bossé là comme des trolley boy c’est là que j’ai appris l’anglais

‘We worked there as trolley boy it is where I learned English’

Ben recalls how his cousin tried to discourage him from immediately looking for a job when he arrived in Cape Town, because he didn’t speak English. Ben’s own work experience (he found a job not too long after he arrived) and his assessment of the situation on the ground brought him to challenge the advice he had received:

Ben: on te dit tu peux pas faire ceci parce que tu ne parles pas anglais (. . .) c’est le genre de barrières qui va vraiment te retarder (. . .) j’ai vu des gens venir ici pas vraiment avec un bon niveau d’anglais mais ils travaillaient

Ben: They tell you you cannot do this because you don’t speak English (. . .) it is the kind of barriers that will really delay you (. . .) I saw people come here not really with good competence in English but they worked

It is hard to assess whether the migrants who learned English in ESL schools fare better in Cape Town than those who didn’t. My fieldwork shows that on the South African job market, the migrants cannot rely overly on their institutionalized notion of linguistic capital to be competitive. Mobility often entails socioeconomic downgrading, as the anticipated benefits from their formal education in DRC are not met.

Speakers like Ben operate on what Bourdieu (1986) calls embodied capital, which he defines as properties of the self which a social agent accumulates consciously or in practice. This form of capital cannot be measured statistically, unlike years of education, in part because it does not consist of discrete units. In Kinshasa, this embodied capital is encapsulated by the notion of la débrouille (‘fending for oneself’), also known as système D. This can be summed up as “making whatever opportunities arise to avoid starvation” (Lemarchand, 2002, cited by Trefon, 2004). Acquired sometimes at an early age, this embodied capital involves a high degree of entrepreneurship, ranging from small-scale business (as in the case of Martin, who used to sell bar soaps to his high school boarding mates) to larger operations (as in the case of Louis, who rewires the electrical circuits of streetlights, albeit illegally, to connect his customers’ cellphones). As documented in the literature, new small-scale economic activities keep emerging in Kinshasa, enabling people to survive in what, from an economic perspective, appears to be a highly dysfunctional city (Nzeza Bilakila, 2004). My consultant Sylvain summarizes it as:

Sylvain: être grandi difficilement (. . .) ça te permet d’avoir des ouvertures dans ta tête la manière de penser _ la manière d’agir\

‘Having grown up in harsh conditions (. . .) enables you to have breakthroughs in your head/ way of thinking _ way of acting\’

My ethnographic work both in the DRC and in Cape Town shows that the Kinois’ ability to survive bears a strong symbolic capital. The reframing of these survival strategies as indexing an individual’s smartness and agency appears to erase the context of extreme hardship in which they were built. When asked how they get by on a daily basis, my consultants both in Kinshasa and in Cape Town often answer, in a slightly amusing and enigmatic way: but Cécile, I am Congolese. The category Congolese in this context no longer indexes a place of origin but a way of living. The activities that my interlocutors in Cape Town are willing to disclose to me do not necessarily involve shady practices. Indeed, if these activities had remained at the margins of legality Lingala would have been less attractive to others and therefore might not have thrived as much as it has in Cape Town, as I am about to show.

Bourdieu (1983) introduced the notion of economic habitus in reaction to economists’ rational action theory, which, according to him, comes with the erasure of an individual’s history of practices and acquired dispositions under specific social and economic conditions, although these dispositions operate non-deterministically. According to Bourdieu, the economic field, like any other field, is defined as a space of strategic possibilities in which actors have potential moves and actions. In the case of many Kinois in Cape Town, the economic field in which they operate cannot be separated from the economic habitus they acquired in Kinshasa. They have constructed an alternative vernacular/informal economic field in which their embodied capital functions as an asset in their acquisition of the social and economic capital that helps them keep their dominant positions in the field. For those people, the informal economy is not a default choice, merely because there aren’t enough employment opportunities in South Africa; it is an adaptation of their economic behavior in their homeland to their new socioeconomic environment. However, the embodied capital is often not acquired consciously.

Thanks to la débrouille, the Kinois in Cape Town develop small- to medium-scale businesses, such as selling cigarettes on the street, braiding hair, operating Internet cafés, and managing trolley services. Some of these business owners often run alternative social and economic activities not publicly stated, yet not necessarily unlawful. Several of these businesses have seen the light thanks to the small-scale system of likelemba (‘solidarity savings mechanism’). For those involved in it, this practice becomes a resource for action (e.g., setting up a business) and, to some extent, a source of power (e.g., controlling who gets employed or not). As it operates in Lingala and generates sources of income for its members, Congolese who do not speak the language feel the pressure to acquire it and have access to the jobs it opens. Because there is no institutionalized process of recruitment in this field, linguistic capital is crucial for landing a job. Indeed, social networks play a crucial role in getting informed about job vacancy, especially in an economic system where job advertising is mostly circulated by word of mouth. Note that the acquisition of this linguistic capital (Lingala) depends on the social capital one possesses, as the language can only be acquired naturalistically, by interacting regularly with its speakers. In this case, social capital can be converted into linguistic capital.

The workplace is often a setting of intense socialization, where other Kinois come and go all day long and chat with the business owner or employees. Although Lingala is never explicitly stated as a job requirement, many Congolese I interviewed told me that they learned it at their workplace. They felt the pressure to acquire it also in order to avoid the stigmatization associated with speaking French in vernacular interactions. They added that by working in a predominantly Lingala-speaking workplace, they are not exposed regularly to English; therefore they feel socioeconomically disempowered, as they don’t feel competitive on the South African job market. Once again, this illustrates not only that capital is always articulated in relation to a given field but also that resources, which languages constitute in Bourdieu’s approach, bear symbolic values.

The adoption of Lingala by non-Lingala-speaking Congolese reflects the change of the indexical values of the language in the context of migration. Whereas in DRC, non-Kinois tend to despise Lingala as a language associated with the “bad lifestyle” of its speakers living in Kinshasa, in Cape Town it has come to index potential socioeconomic emancipation in the local job market, which is not always welcoming to African migrants. Note that the “primary economic arrangements for everyday living” (Woolard, 1985, p. 742) that trigger the spread of Lingala in Cape Town are similar to that of Kinshasa, where Lingala has been encroaching into domains traditionally associated with French in the white-collar sector. As argued in Vigouroux (2013, pp. 231–232), the “growing pauperisation of the [Congolese in Kinshasa] has been accompanied by a weakening of the urban administration and the concomitant decline of the status of the former colonial language, to the benefit of the urban vernacular. (. . .) There is now grassroots social pressure to adopt Lingala even on those who once were considered the pace setters.” The example of Lingala in Cape Town suggests that we examine language also from an indexical rather than from a strictly denotational point of view, according to which language is a bounded entity that remains stable across contexts.

These observations call for an integrative approach to language practice in the context of migration, a context where language use can be conceived of as a continuum of practices along the social and geographic migratory trajectories and not as disconnected from previous language practices. Although this position corroborates the idea that language practices in the context of migration are adaptive responses to the local ecology, the integrative approach emphasizes the fact that the responses are not constructed independent of the speakers’ previous communicative practices. The integrative approach makes it possible to historicize the migrants’ language practices and therefore to better understand the impact of the new host environment on the social and economic habitus acquired prior to migration. This perspective implies that the context of migration should be reassessed and not posited a priori as the main (if not the only) explanatory factor in shaping people’s practices. It also prompts us to rethink the dichotomy home versus host country with which migration has been framed primarily in terms of disjuncture and difference.

In the scholarly literature on language and migration, great emphasis has been put on migrants’ language attrition and loss, with the migratory experience framed as putting in danger the speakers’ vernaculars and vehicular languages. Little attention has been directed to the social dynamics that lead migrants to acquire a lingua franca from their own homeland while in the host country. More studies need to be undertaken in this direction.

The spread of Lingala in Cape Town also illustrates the need to factor in the role of the informal economy to explain language vitality (see Djité, 2008). This is particularly important in the African context, where the informal economy is, for the majority of people, the only way to make a living. According to the 2015 figures of International Labor Migration (ILO) “eight in ten young workers in all eight school-to-work transition survey (SWTS) countries fall into the category of informal employment” in sub-Saharan Africa. As argued in Vigouroux (2013), it is less the definition of the informal economy that matters for linguists than the social practices that it entails. As summarized by Light (2004, p. 515): “In an informal economy, people draw upon relationships and networks. The relationship is part of the value exchanged.” These networks need to be investigated ethnographically in order to better understand how individual acts of communication cumulatively lead to language change, spread, or loss (Mufwene, 2001).

6. The Prospects of a Sociolinguistics of South–South African Migrations

By their very presence in a host land, migrants embody complex and multidimensional geographical, political, economic, and historical relations between countries. However, one shouldn’t dissociate the migrants too hastily from their agency and depict them as passive experiencers of broader historical dynamics. It would be misleading to define migrants solely in reference to their geographic mobility, without paying close attention to the social dimension of this mobility. Any reflection on migration should be articulated in conjunction with the ways in which mobility is constructed and discursively articulated by migrants and their host communities.

Our understanding of language practices of African migrants moving within the continent is still partial, due to limitations pointed out in this article. While precolonial African migrations have long been a central theme in African studies, for instance to explain the distribution of language families (e.g., Heine & Nurse, 2000; Ehret, 2011), contemporary migrations have not received the same attention.

Although the few cases examined here do not allow for any pan-African generalizations, they help raise a number of important theoretical and methodological issues that can fruitfully contribute to the scholarship on migrations. For instance, the relevance of the institutional categories used to distinguish between types of migrants (e.g., refugees, economic migrants, or illegal migrants) needs to be critically assessed, as such categories don’t necessarily help linguists understand the patterns of social contacts on the grounds that really matter to them. The case studies presented here also underscore the relevance of combining the analysis of migrants’ language practices with that of the host populations’ practices; the combination makes it possible to better assess the nature of population contacts.

The sociolinguistic approach to migration adopted in this chapter highlights the fact that mobility is linked to a world of practices and ideologies; therefore it cannot be reduced to spatial trajectories, however refined the description of them may be. Migrants’ language repertoires give analysts access to this world of practices, as these repertoires reflect speakers’ history of social encounters. The heterogeneity emerging from the analysis of micro language practices such as those presented here are a reminder to resist hasty and simplistic explanations which claim to be unified accounts of dynamic behaviors that are otherwise complex and variable. But micro-scale studies should not obscure broader time-space scales of language dynamics.

Hopefully, this article will arouse the interest of students of migration in engaging with work produced by sociolinguists and make those working on South-to-North migrations aware of the theoretical and methodological significance of the scholarship on migration produced on and in the South. It should help reshape the academic discourse, making it more inclusive and more nuanced.


I would like to thank Salikoko S. Mufwene, Kasper Juffermans, and one anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments that helped me strengthen my arguments. I am solely responsible for the remaining shortcomings.


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