The power of translingual writing used in everyday practical ways: LILIEMA

LILIEMA is a literacy program in Senegal’s Casamance region that uses grassroots strategies for teaching reading/writing in communities. People are taught to write in dominant languages’ writing systems extended to their entire repertoires, which allows them to write in societies where written resources are unavailable in the majority of languages. This overcomes the limits of formal multilingual education, where some languages, lects, or written expressions are excluded in textual literacy. Instead, individuals and communities have a tool to write in monolingual, multilingual, or translingual modes based on needs—as shown in participants’ family accounting, their community/church communication, and a successful COVID-19 information campaign that reached thousands. I wonder whether it would be possible to do these kinds of reading/writing classes with younger learners, where institutionalized rules about language would not apply, and whether this could aid children’s school success, be more effective than school-based learning, and shape their attitudes about language.

This is a summary of a talk in the Language and Sustainable Development Series at the Universities of Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Essex, and Zambia. The series makes connections between community language and literacy practices and formal learning.

Lüpke, F., Sagna, J. F., & Weidl, M. (2021, May 7). Inclusive multilingual literacy: The LILIEMA model. Talk for the Language and Sustainable Development Series, Universities of Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Essex, and Zambia.

Africa has about 2,700 languages, but 80% of Africans are educated in languages they don’t speak (Lüpke, Sagna, & Weidl, 2021). Formal education in schools/universities is almost exclusively in European colonial languages—French, Portuguese, German, etc.—or colonially created standard versions of African languages. Shockingly, these languages are not taught as school subjects to help learners acquire them, with the school system implying they are “native” to students, even though they are not used outside of school! The consequences, similar to a situation in India discussed by Mohanty (2021) in another talk, are high drop-out rates, linguistic discrimination, exclusion from civic participation, and education systems catering only for small elites.

Lüpke et al. (2021)

In the graphic above, “Translocal” means regional lingua francas and “Local” means innumerable other languages spoken in villages, some not listed. As Lüpke et al. put it, “The smaller the languages people speak, the more multilingual they are.” The applied linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas pointed out the global phenomenon that people from non-dominant groups in societies must become bi/multilingual in at least their language and the national language, if not also layers of regionally dominant languages, simply as a matter of survival. On the other hand, L1 speakers of dominant languages engage in less language learning and generally have a lot less knowledge of languages, even if their ways of speaking are praised as standard (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981). If governments implement literacy campaigns, even for minoritized languages, they tend to happen in one language. In Casamance, due to hosting strangers/members of professional groups, intermarriages, child fostering, economic migration, seasonal labour, nomadic lifestyles, and crises like COVID-19, this monolingual literacy is not really what people need.

One research participant described in the talk was Odile from Guinea Bissau, whose language repertoire consists of asymmetrical resources (i.e., not balanced across domains) from Njago, Bainunk Gubëher, Kriol, Balante, Wolof, Joola, and Joola Fogny. The fact that Odile’s language repertoire is asymmetrical is not a deficit: everyone’s language repertoire is asymmetrical and integrated (García, 2009). Hadi, who identifies as Joola Buluf, has a language repertoire that includes Joola Buluf, Arabic, Joola Kaasa, Wolof, Joola Fogny, Joola Kujireray, Bainunk Gubëher, Joola Banjal, Bainunk Guñamolo, Sose, and Sarakhule. The researchers played a video of a large extended family translanguaging between Wolof, French, Bainounk Gubëher, and Joola… and while Wolof seemed most spoken, it was only by a slight margin; all the languages were used substantially to carry out the same conversation.

How can people write and communicate with other people using all the linguistic resources needed for the task? LILIEMA aims to foster “an inclusive approach, including everybody, every language, and all kinds of multilingualism.” With 10 core members, many of them in paid jobs—outreach coordinators, transcribers, materials designers, teachers, and teacher trainees—they created literacy teaching materials with a clear letter-sound correspondence, based on the existing orthography for Wolof in the Latin script. Most of the team have lived most of their life in Casamance, and they cover most of the languages present in the area.

Operating in seven villages, they offer reading and writing courses (f2f and online), cultural days, a COVID-19 information campaign, and independent village-based projects. The courses are translingual—just like the family mentioned above, course participants communicate by translanguaging as they learn literacy practices in the Wolof alphabet, which incorporates people’s whole language repertoires. Not necessarily all texts are multilingual, but the point is to let all participants use their whole language repertoires.

Feedback from students indicated that students felt they could DO literacy practices at last. They also used the LILIEMA method outside of the courses, giving it to their family and friends. One participant, René, stated, “There was a time after school when I rarely wrote anything, but after going back to LILIEMA, I started to write and read again…. I am responsible for the church here. I am writing everything in Kreol, but now even the French is not confusing me anymore!” Another participant, Caaci, explained: “This month I wrote down what I need for my animals, what food, what medicine when they get sick. I wrote in Bayot, but I also used Fogny, Wolof and French because they have better words sometimes. My son… saw it, read it and understood! I was surprised!” The fact that her son understood the information suggests that initiatives like LILIEMA have ripple effects to spread literacy as the course participants share the reading and writing practices with their networks while getting important things done.

One of these important things was a COVID-19 campaign. Using information from the government, the LILIEMA team presented information in a wider range of languages and modalities accessible to people, including images only for people who could not read/write in any language.

Lüpke et al. (2021)

From French, they translated the information into accessible wording in local languages for their posters using the Wolof alphabet. They made over 2,000 posters in 16 villages—putting them in strategically important places like local shops and bus stops, reaching an estimated “several thousand people.” They then surveyed over 700 people to know the impact of the posters: 82% of survey participants said they accessed and understood the information, and 99.7% said they would like to continue to receive the information in a multilingual way.

In conclusion, LILIEMA is a community literacy project run by local experts, reflecting people’s actual multilingual practices. It includes everybody, draws on the fluid and multilingual linguistic repertoires of speakers, and valorizes local and regional languages. It lets people write (1) monolingually, (2) in parallel translation (as in the COVID-19 posters), or (3) through translanguaging (as in participants’ messages for keeping track of livestock or doing their church work)… according to task, audience and needs. It empowers individuals, spreading as people who took the courses share practices with their networks, teaching what they learned to others. The project also showed that during crises like COVID-19, communication needs to appear in the appropriate linguistic resources and modalities. One must work with intended recipients to create messages in a medium that will be, according to the presenters, “accessible and trusted.”

Summary of Q&A

The key question raised during Q&A was: “Can we imagine this in the formal school context?” According to Lüpke, these practices are perhaps too different from school writing. First of all, in LILIEMA, you cannot go wrong in your writing: if there are language conventions, they emerge “bottom-up,” as repeated patterns of use. In contrast, school literacy is based on standard language and social selection, which is incompatible with the LILIEMA philosophy. Lüpke’s colleague Weidl explained that LILIEMA classes take place in public spaces; the LILIEMA team brings a blackboard and the participants bring their own chairs. Once, when they tried to hold a class by borrowing a school classroom, nobody came. The feedback was that people didn’t want to have the class there. That is not to say that participants who learn literacy practices in LILIEMA cannot transfer some of them into the school context.

Another issue brought up was about teaching specific African languages. In Lüpke’s view, LILIEMA can be preferable to literacy education in a societally dominant African language like Wolof, because some dominant languages carry negative connotations for some people, as they are the languages of the nationally or regionally dominant group that oppresses them. Moreover, some people are not dominant in the national or regional languages, so not even universal public education in Wolof would create the same degree of inclusivity. “LILIEMA does not force people to select” a language (i.e., choose a side), said Lüpke. It meets the complex literacy needs of linguistically diverse communities, in which individuals differ in their language repertoires.

Dr. Kula, the webinar series coordinator, asked towards the end whether the LILIEMA team had ever taken their project to school policy makers, and if so, how did they react? Lüpke answered that when they attend education conferences, they meet with hostility from authorities: “We do not fit their model of literacy and education.” However, locally, they feel much appreciated, including by local officials, and teachers who ask them to create materials for them to teach with—which says a lot about the efficacy of this approach to literacy instruction. What I wonder, then, is whether it would be possible to do such classes in a community setting with younger learners, where institutionalized rules about language would not apply, and whether this could aid children’s school success, be more effective than school-based learning, and shape their attitudes about language.

Want to learn more? You can read about this project in a British Council publication. Click on the link below to download the chapter, which you can cite as follows:

Lüpke, F., Biagui, A. C., Biaye, L., Diatta, J., Mané, A. N., Preira, G., Sagna, J. F., & Weidl, M. (2017). LILIEMA: Language-independent literacies for inclusive education in multilingual areas. In P. Harding-Esch & H. Coleman (Eds.), Language and the sustainable development goals: Selected proceedings of the 12th Language and Development Conference, Dakar, Senegal. British Council.


García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Wiley-Blackwell.

Mohanty, A. (2021, March 25). Growing up with languages: Implications for multilingual education. Plurilingual Lab Speaker Series, McGill University, Montréal, Canada.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1981). Bilingualism or not: The education of minorities (trans. L. Malmberg & D. Crane). Multilingual Matters.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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