A film embedded in research

Kanraxël is a film created as part of the AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Scheme “Skills development for language research and teaching in a multilingual world”. This scheme brought together students from three universities with multilingualism researchers, and, crucially for the creation of Kanraxël, some of them with multilingual places and people at Friederike Lüpke’s field site in the Casamance area of Southern Senegal. There, she had been conducting research on Baïnounk languages since 2010 in an interdisciplinary team, funded by the DoBeS programme of the German VW foundation. This project was, as is still the case for most language documentation projects, focussed on the initial description and documentation of individual languages conceptualised as the languages of village-based communities. Soon, the two linguists on the DoBeS project, Friederike and Alexander Cobbinah, and Rachel Watson, who conducted research on a Joola language close-by, started realising that these villages, that were often presented as places “having” one language, were hotbeds of multilingualism. Their growing interest in this often invisible multilingualism that is not modern, urban and globalised, but reaches far back into the past of the Frontier societies in this area, resulted initially in a book co-authored by Friederike and her colleague Anne Storch, Repertoires and Choices in African languages, in which they explore causes and patterns of multilingualism and fluidity of repertoires on the African continent and reflect on ways to approach them. For Friederike, this book was her conceptual foundation for follow-up research in the area that has as its explicit focus the interdisciplinary documentation of multilingualism in several sites in Casamance. She obtained funding from the Leverhulme Trust for a collaborative and intersdisciplinary Research Leadership Award project “At the Crossroads – investigating the unexplored side of multilingualism” from January 2014 to December 2018.


Like the research of the Crossroads team, the creation of Kanraxël was motivated by the desire to make multilingualism in Casamance visible, and to celebrate multilingualism and diversity at large. Since most of the languages used in Agnack, the village portrayed in the film, are not used in the linguistic landscape, this turned out to be quite a challenge, not only requiring innovative ways of making up to eight languages out of the many spoken in the film visible for viewers, but also demanding immense collaboration around story boarding and scene selection between the filmmakers at Chouette Films and the main consultant, transcriber and translator, Alpha Naby Mane: most of the scenes were completely inaccessible to Western team members who spoke at best one or two of the languages used in Agnack. Remigiusz Sowa, the director and Anna Sowa, the producer, had a mere three weeks as part of the AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Scheme “Skills development for language research and teaching in a multilingual world” to film the documentary. Only the combination of rare skill sets and the existence of a strong rapport between research participants, researchers and filmmakers made it possible to see this ambitious project through.


    Everybody benefitted from Alpha’s skills in language documentation: as a transcriber and research assistant, he was well versed in the annotation software ELAN used by linguists for the time-aligned transcription and annotation of audiovisual language data and brought this expertise to the film project. The filmmakers from Chouette films, in turn, were able to build on the trust created through the longstanding relationship of Friederike and her colleagues with inhabitants of Agnack, and on the familiarity they had with presence of a camcorder. Rethinking language documentation methodology, Friederike had started filming spontaneous interactions (rather than more ‘scripted’ elicitations or staged events) in all households of Agnack in 2012, a method described in this paper. Finally, Chouette Films had honed their filmmaking approach in a setting where they had to know how to anticipate an action and minimise the disruptive effect of their presence. This enabled them to film with such sensitivity and vibrancy that the smells and colours radiate from the screen. Read more about their methodology described here.

    The result of this collaboration convinced academic audiences and enchanted viewers around the world. In 2015, the film won the AHRC research in film award in the category “Best film produced by a researcher or research team in the last year”. The jury’s verdict states: this is “a beautifully filmed and scripted film… a highly sophisticated film, beautifully shot, cut, and recorded, which conveys the nature of multilingual life in the village very effectively indeed.”


Places like Agnack, of which there are many in rural Africa and worldwide, defy common conceptualisations of multilingualism. There is a widespread conception of multilingualism as a modern phenomenon widespread in urban areas and associated with growing mobility and migration in an era of globalization. Kanraxël offers viewers from everywhere the rare opportunity to become directly immersed in versatile multilingual practices in a tiny village in Senegal that invite us to shed these stereotypical expectations on what multilingualism is and what it means to speak several languages.  Places like Agnack also invite us to see multilingualism as a resource, not as a problem, and to reflect on our own repertoires.

With this motivation, we present two sets of teaching materials developed around the film. Each module or sessions is supported by clips from the film. One set is aimed at university students which has been created by Miriam Weidl and Samantha Goodchild, two team members of the Crossroads-Project who conduct sociolinguistic research in this multilingual area. The university teaching materials consists of five modules that focus on different topics that can be used independently from each other. They focus on language policies in multilingual contexts, methods for sociolinguistic data collection, linguistic repertoires, language use in different spheres and language ideologies and attitudes. Each of the modules is composed of a students and a teachers manual with different exercises, topic related readings, essay and assignment questions. The second set has been developed for UK secondary school students at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, but can be integrated in any secondary school syllabus worldwide. A set of lessons, conceived by Neela Doležalová, a teacher and writer, has a wide thematic scope across four subjects: Languages (including MFL), Geography, Economics and PSHE. Three lessons focus on multilingualism and introduce the causes and benefits of multilingualism as well as patterns of multilingual language use. Another set of lessons use scenes for an economics lesson on supply and demand, a geography or economics lesson on the impact of infrastructure projects, and a final geography or PSHE lesson on migration. A set of suggested essay questions based on the entire film cover a wider set of subject areas at Key Stage 5: Languages/Linguistics, Geography, Sociology, RS and Philosophy, Economics, History and Media Studies.

Places like Agnack remain at the margin, not only of globalisation, but also of mainstream perception. Yet, they have important stories to tell us, and can illustrate many global settings where small-scale or rural multilingualism exists. We hope that these materials will contribute to making these sites of diversity and resilience accessible and visible worldwide, and that they will result in changing the ways in which multilingualism is covered in school and university curricula.

All the teaching materials are available free of charge on this website. You can access one module or lesson without registering. If you want to use more than one module or lesson, we ask you to register on our site, because we would like to know who is using our resources, and we would like to occasionally send you a short user survey to get your feedback.



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