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‘Stemmen van Afrika’ wins popularisation prize: 'Language is more than grammar'

The Voices of Africa platform is ten years old and has just recently won the annual popularisation prize of the Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics (LOT). High time for a chat with Jenneke van der Wal, Maarten Mous and Nina van der Vlugt about the importance of the platform and plans for the future.

'Voices of Africa is a platform that wants to make knowledge about African languages and stories more accessible,' Mous says, emeritus professor and co-founder of the platform. 'We do this, among other things, through an online escape game and a teaching package created in cooperation with ICLON.'

This allows primary school pupils to be introduced to languages they would not otherwise encounter in a fun way. 'The schoolchildren engage with questions about multilingualism, but also about different grammars. They learn about African languages in a playful way and that they are more than just the sentence structure and grammar from the textbook, that they are actually alive,' says Mous.

Stepping stone

This approach proved successful: the platform won the LOT popularisation award. The jury praised the broad reach that Voices of Africa has managed to achieve, partly through its teaching packages and online escape room. 'Languages are never just the language,' says Van der Vlugt, PhD student and was involved in the project as an intern. 'They are also the history and culture of a population.'

Associate professor and chief editor Van der Wal adds: 'By preserving the language, you also preserve those other elements. There are some seven thousand languages, and two thousand of them are spoken on the African continent - a huge range of linguistic diversity, in other words. With the escape room and teaching packages, we offer a stepping stone for further study.'

Link to current events

In addition, Voices of Africa writes articles on African languages, regularly linking them to current developments. 'When Wie is de Mol? (a Dutch adventure reality show) was shot in South Africa last year, South African languages played a role in several assignments, but the candidates were not told which languages they had to decipher,' Van der Vlugt explains. 'They were only described as "a South African language". Because of our interest in African languages, we naturally wanted to know what was behind them, so we decided to figure out exactly which languages they were. We then wrote a number of articles on the subject, which were widely shared by viewers of the programme. They had become curious themselves.'


In the future, Voices of Africa aims to expand the storytelling corner to include various African folktales and myths so that the languages come alive and appeal to a younger audience again, and especially those from the African diaspora. 'The stories appear in both their original language and in a Dutch translation,' says Van der Wal. 'Children growing up here will be taught these stories in a new way.'

Other members of the editorial team of 'Stemmen van Afrika':

Bert van Pinxteren, Mark Dingemanse, Saskia van Putten, Sandra Bleeker and Margot van den Berg.

Hilde Gunnink, Laura Minderaa and Iris Kruijsdijk hebben have contributed to the escape game and the teaching package.

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