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Felix Ameka: ‘Multilingualism is the answer to many problems’

A new challenge for Felix Ameka. The senior lecturer at the Centre for Linguistics has been appointed professor by special appointment of Ethnolinguistic Vitality and Diversity in the World. ‘I am looking forward to promoting ethnolinguistic diversity and vitality.’

Felix Ameka

The Chair is a joint initiative of CIPL (International Committee of Linguists) and CIPSH (International Committee of Philosophy and Humanities), who are also responsible for its establishment. For Ameka, the chair means a place at the centre of the social debate.  ‘The vitality of language is a hot topic in large parts of the world. We also see this happening in the Netherlands, where the working language in higher education is an ongoing discussion: should it be English or Dutch? As linguists, we have not always been involved in such issues in the past. We have documented a lot of languages, but the results disappeared in archives.’

More human languages than birdsongs

One of the objectives of the chair is therefore to advise more actively on language politics. In addition, a series of webinars has been planned in order to exchange ideas with scholars from all over the world. This approach matches the international character of the chair, which came about through a collaboration between organisations from different countries, but also matches Ameka’s personal beliefs: ‘Humans are the only species with more than seven thousand languages, even birds don’t reach that number. This diversity defines us, but in research we often focus on standardisation. I want to make people aware of the differences.’

More than the West

According to Ameka, the focus on standardisation too often leads to people falling back on the idea that one (Western) language is dominant. ‘We often assume that people grow up with one language and in addition learn other languages, but in many communities where my colleagues and I work, children grow up with three or four languages. I want to research how they do that, in part because current advice is frequently to focus on one language in education at a time, often the English language. Other languages are subsequently and wrongly given a secondary role.’

Ameka’s aim is to contribute to decolonisation with this research: ‘Because of this bias to the use of one language and the focus on English, it is still too often thought that the Western system of knowledge is the only one. When there is more room for different languages, there is also more room for corresponding knowledge systems. As far as I am concerned, multilingualism and plurality in knowledge sytems is the answer to many problems.’

Felix Ameka's primary research interests are the quest for the meaning of linguistic signs and exploring their use in social interaction. He is also interested in how and why languages vary and change over time and space, also in the reflexice relation between language, culture and cognition. His empirical specialisation is West African languages.

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