Monthly Archives: April 2008

Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus

The NNEST Caucus Member
of the Month
May 2008
nkamwangamalu [at] Howard [dot] edu
Ana Wu: Could you tell us about your professional background and why you decided to become an educator?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: Let me first tell your readers about my social and academic background. I was born in a rural village in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. My entire primary and secondary education was exclusively in French, the official language of the Congo. After graduating from college with a BA in English language and literature, I was offered the Fulbright scholarship to study linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I obtained the PhD degree in 1989. Then my academic journey as a college professor started, taking me to Singapore, Swaziland, South Africa (my adoptive country) and, finally, to Howard University, where I am now based.

Teaching has been a vocation and a passion for me since childhood. I recall everybody in my village calling me “teacher” long before I even graduated from primary school. It would not be an overstatement to say that I was born to be a teacher. While growing up there were three professions to which the youth of my generation aspired: teaching, priesthood, and medicine. It was fashionable and a mark of a higher social status to be a teacher, a priest or a medical doctor. I decided to become a teacher because, of all the three professions, teaching was what I liked most and was, cost wise, what my parents could afford. I had a passion for mathematics and languages, and I was even a high school math-teacher. It never occurred to me that I would become an English teacher and a linguist. I cannot explain how this happened. However, in hindsight and given the prominence of English in today’s world, I think I made the right choice by studying linguistics in English. I was trained in theoretical linguistics and sociolinguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I published in both areas while a graduate student as well as early in my career as a college professor. However, for the past fifteen years my teaching/research has focused on sociolinguistics. Teaching has been a very rewarding profession for me, for it has opened up my eyes to the world. The profession has allowed me to travel extensively, to visit places that I never dreamt of seeing in my lifetime, and to work with peers and establish a network of friends from various parts of the world. Against this background, I consider myself as an international citizen, as a citizen with no borders, so to speak.

Ana Wu: Sridhar and Sridhar (cited in Coetze-Van Roy, 2006) argue that the existing Second Language Acquisition theories have lost their explanatory power because they do not take the contexts of world Englishes learners into consideration. As an expert in multilingualism, language and identity, and sociolinguistics, what issues do you think need further research? What topics can NNES professionals better contribute with their background as resources?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: The emergence of new varieties of English in former British and American colonies indicates clearly that English has become pluricentric, that is, the United Kingdom and the United States no longer have the monopoly over norm creation and innovations in the language. Accordingly, NNES professionals should begin by problematizing the very concept of NNES itself. This concept, which seems to have been entrenched in the literature, is the flip side of an old, value-laden dichotomy of native vs non-native speakers of English. The dichotomy raises a number of important questions that I believe should be of interest to professionals in the field. Some of these, such as ‘who owns English?,’ have been the object of inquiry over the years. Others, however, are as yet to be investigated. For instance, what do we call the children who, due to language shift–as is the case for some children in Singapore (Gupta and Yeok, 1995) and for the younger generations of Indians in South Africa–speak no other language but English? Are these children native speakers of English, of at least the variety spoken in their communities? As I argue elsewhere (Kamwangamalu, in press), if we are to legitimize the varieties of English that have emerged in postcolonial countries in Asia and Africa, it must be acknowledged that there are children in these countries who speak English as L1, and in some cases as the only medium of communication available in their linguistic repertoire, just as is the case for most children in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or the United States. Investigating these questions might generate a new research paradigm for New Englishes, a paradigm that does away with the current dichotomy of native vs non-native speakers of English.

Ana Wu: As a professor, you have extensive experience teaching at Howard University in the US, the National University of Singapore, and at the University of Swaziland and the University of Natal in South Africa, where you were both professor and director of the Linguistics Program. What were you most vivid memories in your professional practices?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: I have taught diverse groups of students over the years, and have learnt a lot from them. They have enriched my own research in ways that I cannot possibly describe. I feel fulfilled and proud especially at graduation time, when I see my students receive their own degrees as I did mine years ago. For me as an international citizen, this is giving back to the world community, a community to which I owe much of my own professional development as a scholar.

Ana Wu: When you were a student, you were ranked three times as an excellent Graduate Teaching Assistant, and have also received a Fulbright award. Now, besides being a professor, you serve in the editorial board of World Englishes, having served before for other reputable publishers, such as Multilingual Matters. Also, you have presented over fifty scholarly papers at professional meetings in many countries. Did you encounter obstacles for being a minority? How did you overcome them? What advice would you give to NNES graduate students or novice teachers who are minorities in their working environment?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: As an international citizen, I have never considered myself a minority in my profession. I do understand, though, that the term minority has by far wider currency in the west and other places than in the traditional Africa’s communal culture in which I was raised. In that culture, the line between minority and majority groups was blurry. This background, coupled with my educational training, has prepared me to work anywhere my skills as a teacher are needed. My advice to the younger generation of ‘minority’ scholars is this: Be disciplined, work hard and let your work speak for itself. Build healthy work relationships with your peers, irrespective of whether they are from the majority or minority group or culture. Never internalize the idea of being a minority, even if you know that you are one, for doing so would most likely hold you down.

Ana Wu: As an authority in language policy and planning, codeswitching, and African linguistics, would you tell us the status of local English teachers with non-standard accent as opposed to those who present an American or British accent in (South) Africa?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: In Africa, most teachers of English are trained locally by colleagues who were themselves trained either locally or overseas. Irrespective of where they were trained, teachers of English in Africa do speak the language with a local rather than American or British accent. Local accent does not necessarily mean non-standard accent. Just like NNES, non-standard accent is another attitudinally loaded term, which NNES professionals should problematize especially as it applies to English teaching in the postcolonial societies.

Ana Wu: How many languages and dialects can you speak? When you were in Singapore, did you talk in Chinese? What makes you a successful language learner?
Prof. Kamwangamalu: I speak five languages. These include French, English and three African languages, viz. Lingala, Swahili and Ciluba, my mother tongue. Also, I can exchange greetings in Zulu. African languages are so similar that if you know one language you will find it easier to learn any others to which you are exposed. As for Chinese, I must admit I missed the opportunity to learn the language while I was in Singapore. However, I can say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Chinese, as well as ‘hello’ in another Asian language, Korean, which I picked from my Korean friends and classmates at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Ana Wu: Thank you for your time and for this insightful interview!

Coetzee-Van Rooy, S. (2006). Integrativeness: Untenable for World Englishes Learners? World Englishes, 25 (3), 437-450.