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Women with two children being interviewed in Guinea-Bissau for Jacqueline Rowe's fieldwork project

Jacqueline Rowe, a recent graduate in linguistics from Cambridge, reflects on the complexity of post-colonial language policy based on her fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau.

Jacqueline Rowe graduated from the Section of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics in 2019. Her dissertation project, supervised by Dr Henriette Hendriks, considered the role of Portuguese, Creole and indigenous languages in Bissau-Guinean society and schools, and the impact of globalisation on indigenous language practices. Jacqueline collected her data via a series of interviews with Bissau-Guineans, and created a short documentary from the interview footage outlining the political tensions surrounding language use and language choices in Guinea-Bissau, which she shares here. Jacqueline currently works as a Programme Assistant at the International Law Programme at Chatham House.

Twitter: @JacquelineFRowe | mail: 

Jacqueline created this short documentary from her interview footage, outlining the political tensions surrounding language use and language choices in Guinea-Bissau

In the modern world of the language sciences, and hence in linguistics courses, we instill the idea in students that it is important to think beyond their degree at possible implications of the research and work they do during the course. Jacquie is an excellent example of a student who took this to heart and went out to Guinea-Bissau not only to get the materials to write her undergraduate dissertation, but to also make a short documentary that will spread the word about the importance of language diversity and properly managing that diversity for future generations. It was a joy to work with her, and I hope that you will equally enjoy reading her text and watching her film.

Dr Henriette Hendriks, Reader in Language Acquisition and Cognition, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Why Guinea-Bissau?

During the year I spent as an English teacher in Guinea-Bissau, I learnt much about the richness of its linguistic landscape. Its population of 2 million people is home to twenty-five indigenous languages, each inextricably linked to longstanding ethno-cultural communities and practices. Portuguese, the coloniser language, is exclusively and mandatorily used in all administrative, educational and governmental settings. Kiriol, the Portuguese creole, is fundamental as a lingua franca and a marker of national identity, and is the first and sometimes only language of many urban Bissau-Guineans.

Investigating the historic power imbalances between these three language ‘strata’ and considering the interplay between them throughout modern-day Guinea-Bissau can provide valuable insights into processes of individual, collective and national identity building in Guinea-Bissau, particularly during a time of increasing globalisation and the erosion of minority languages and cultures. More importantly, this research is necessary for understanding and addressing linguistic inequalities in post-colonial educational systems relying on a poorly integrated European language as a medium of instruction.

What did I do?

I interviewed 50 participants in different regions of Guinea-Bissau about how they used and perceived Portuguese, Kiriol and the indigenous languages. For my written thesis, I collected quantitative data on both explicit attitudes (using a sociolinguistic questionnaire with gradable responses[1]) and implicit attitudes (using a matched-guise task comparing Kiriol, Portuguese and an indigenous language on Likert scales for status and solidarity[2]).

I relied upon old friends and colleagues to recruit and recommend potential participants in each of the three locations I chose; the ‘hyper-urban’ capital city of Bissau[3], an increasingly multicultural town a short distance from the capital called Ingore[4], and a remote village called Foia[5]. Longstanding trust in these community leaders encouraged more participants to take part[6], and my fluency in Kiriol allowed me to work without a translator, encouraging more honest and informal discussions with my interviewees.

I knew from the outset that an academic paper (written in English) would be inaccessible to my participants and would not engage public interest in the broader political issues. So, in addition to collecting the hard data, I asked my participants to share some of their ideas and experiences on camera for use in a documentary. As prompts for discussion, I asked them what languages they thought were important for their nation, for their community and for their education system, and from their responses I weaved together an accessible narrative which clearly articulates the societal norms and challenges associated with Bissau-Guinean languages.

The documentary is publicly available online, meaning that anyone can access and share it without access to academic journals. Furthermore, the video format and use of Kiriol audio makes it accessible to Bissau-Guineans with weaker literacy skills.


The film shows that Bissau-Guineans daily navigate complex language practices to adapt to particular situations and socio-cultural contexts. They might use Portuguese to come across as clever or to apply for a job; an indigenous language might be appropriate to show respect to elders in their community or to feel a connection with their family and culture; and Kiriol might be the best choice for facilitating clear and inclusive dialogue or for creating artefacts of popular culture.

The documentary also highlights that Kiriol is more central to Bissau-Guinean culture than the legislation surrounding its use would indicate. Many of the participants wondered why Kiriol was not used in schools or in government, and some explained that Kiriol is so widely used across the country that it already encroaches upon the social functions of the indigenous languages.

Another experience common to many participants was the stigmatisation of incompetence in Portuguese, even though the majority of Bissau-Guineans do not speak it fluently, including many working in the educational sector. Many participants felt that they would be better at Portuguese if it was taught in schools as a foreign language rather than used as a medium of instruction.

Wider implications

Firstly, the official line in Guinea-Bissau is that only Portuguese should be used in school. But, as the film shows, most teachers use Kiriol to explain their lessons, and students in rural areas often initially require instruction in an indigenous language as they build fluency in Kiriol before they can progress to Portuguese as they are supposed to. It may be best to assist teachers in these multilingual practices with new curriculum tools and institutional support, given the widely recognised benefits of mother tongue education, rather than insist on Portuguese-medium instruction without acknowledging the challenges of complying with this.

Secondly, literacy initiatives in indigenous languages are few and far between, with very few educational tools. This severely limits the contexts in which these languages are used and fuels the (often implicit) narrative that for something to be worthwhile it has to be European; many Bissau-Guineans prioritise Portuguese in the hope that it will lead to better opportunities for socio-economic progression. Indigenous authors and publishers should be encouraged (and funded) to develop literature and educational tools in their own languages, alongside stronger state support for indigenous language tuition. Preserving and promoting educational respect for indigenous languages will be a vital part of reversing their decline.

The film ultimately gives a glimpse into the complexity of language norms and attitudes in a diverse post-colonial context. Whilst I was able to capture some of the differences in language practices between urban and rural Bissau-Guineans, the effects of age, gender and religion on such practices are yet to be researched. More nuanced investigation is required in Guinea-Bissau, as in many states with similar colonial histories, in order for governmental policy to adequately meet the real needs of real people.                                               


[1] Adapted from Lasagabaster and Huguet’s 2007 study.

[2] The test recordings were by a native speaker of all three languages, presented in a Latin square with buffer recordings to mask his identity throughout the listening task.

[3] Bissau has a population of 0.5 million and a history of several centuries of European contact and internal migration. Most participants from Bissau did not identify with a particular ethno-linguistic group, had fluency in Portuguese, and had been university educated.

[4] Ingore has a population of 5,000 and was fairly ethnically homogeneous until the 1990s. Participants in this group showed a wide range of professions and educational levels.

[5] Foia has a population of 1,500 people, and is only accessible from Bissau in 2 hours by boat or 12 hours by car. Participants in this group were almost all agricultural workers of Balanta-Nhacra ethnicity, with Balanta-Nhacra as their first language.

[6] I found that it was very difficult to recruit women, partly because of difficulty overcoming cultural norms that women should not participate in ‘academic work’ and partly because they were often very busy with work and childcare, whereas men were freer with their time. Despite various efforts, in the end only eleven of my fifty-four participants were female.


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