A professor in the desert: Linguistic fieldwork in Namibia

How is English used in Namibia? What do Namibians say to complain or apologize? How do they make an offer or engage in small talk? Answers to these questions are best found by going to Namibia to collect language data, of course.

Two months ago, in March 2017, I went to Namibia, in the south-west of Africa, with my colleague Professor Anne Schröder from the University of Bielefeld, to do fieldwork.

In the context of research, ‘fieldwork’ does not mean working on a farm, but collecting language data in direct contact with people, rather than doing a survey online, for example. We were interested in finding out how people in Namibia use English in a number of different social situations and wanted to compare our observations with results from other English-speaking countries, for instance England, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Ghana.

We were very happy to get the opportunity to make recordings in a school in Swakopmund, which is a Namibian city on the coast, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib desert, said to be the oldest desert in the world.

School where we collected our data

In that school we were allowed to videotape role-plays by 13 to 17 year old pupils (eighth and eleventh grade). The role-play situations included, for example, returning a dirty jacket borrowed from a friend, taking a lift in a car, and talking to a stranger at a party. We also discussed with the students what they think is polite or rude in these situations, what they would expect from others and what they would do or say themselves. In the end, these discussions, which we also video-recorded, were more interesting than the role-plays. In addition, we distributed questionnaires, in that school and in other contexts, and made systematic observations in particular situations (for instance in shops and restaurants), which we wrote down (technically this is called ‘taking field notes’).

A classic notebook for field notes

We are looking forward to analyze all these data now. It seems that Namibians use English in very specific ways.

Namibia is a large country, twice as large as Germany, but with a population of only 2 million people, similar to Hamburg. More than 90 per cent of the people are black and belong to nine different ethnic groups. When Namibia became independent in 1990, long after other countries in Africa, the government decided that English was the only official language of the new state. This was surprising because Namibia, unlike Kenya or Ghana, had never been a British colony. Namibia had been a German colony for 31 years (1884-1915) and was then ruled by South Africa, who introduced their apartheid system. So German or Afrikaans, the language of white South Africans, would have been more obvious choices than English, and making one of the local African languages the only official language is usually avoided in post-colonial societies, because that would favour one ethnic group and may lead to tensions between the ethnic groups. Also, both Afrikaans and German are still spoken in Namibia today, and not only by the white population. However, the government did not want to favour any of the ethnic groups in the country, black or white. At the same time, they wanted to provide their citizens with better economic perspectives in today’s world by adopting the world language English as their official language.

As a consequence, all teaching in secondary schools and universities, for example, is in English. But many people are not happy about this decision. Therefore it is interesting to see how Namibians use English in education and in their everyday lives.

A street sign in German, English and Afrikaans, three of the many different languages spoken in Namibia

Considering that Namibia was a German colony for only a relatively short time, it is amazing that German influence can still be seen today. You can have Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and Schweinshaxen everywhere, even if it is 40° C outside, but also Eiskaffee. Especially Swakopmund, which was founded by the Germans, is a very multilingual environment.

Ticket to Swakopmund Museum: Evidence of the multiple languages spoken in Namibia

The ticket to Swakopmund Museum is in English, German, Afrikaans, and three African languages, namely Oshivambo, which is the language of the largest ethnic group in Namibia, the Ovambo, accounting for half the population. The other two languages are Herero and Damara-Nama.

It is really important to experience where and how people live in Namibia if you want to understand how they use English (and other languages). Therefore I was grateful that it was possible to spend some time outside Swakopmund and explore the country at least a little bit. It was overwhelming to climb the Spitzkoppe, Namibia’s second highest mountain (1728 m), in a Damara conservation area and see rock paintings by the San (aka “Bushmen”), which are perhaps 4,000 years old, or to meet chameleons, snakes and geckos in the vast Namib desert.

A professor in the desert


Picture credits:
Namibia flag in featured image from Pixabay CC0; all other images by K. P. Schneider.


Professor Dr. Klaus P. Schneider is Professor for Applied English Linguistics in the Department of English, American and Celtic Studies at the University of Bonn. He studied English, Russian and Education in Marburg, Edinburgh and Moscow and received his doctoral degree, his post-doctoral degree and a teaching degree from the University of Marburg. Before coming to Bonn, he taught at the universities of Marburg, Hamburg, and Rostock, and at University College Dublin in Ireland. He is especially interested in how people use language in communication, and in what they say and how they say it to reach their social goals.

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