Talk to Text Safaliba Literacy Activism

Grassroots Ghanaian Educational Language Policy


  • Ari Sherris



Safaliba literacy, Indigenous Languages, Educational Linguistics, Linguistic Ethnography


Safaliba is an understudied indigenous language. Approximately 7–9,000 Ghanaians speak it in a country with a population of about 26.3 million. It is one of an estimated 73 indigenous Ghanaian languages, none of which have a majority of first language speakers. Safaliba speakers are for the most part subsistence farmers, while a minority are teachers, shopkeepers, tradespeople, and craftspeople who often farm too. The purpose of this essay is to share an encapsulated history of literacy of this proud and strong people, as well as document a Safaliba activist’s resistance to hegemonic discourses in Ghanaian language policy. It is a captivating story because of its intergenerational activism, quiet resistance to government materials, and Safaliba materials development from talk to text. The paper frames Safaliba activism as an indigenous people’s late modern resistance to global pressures that are causing languages to disappear at an unprecedented rate. Data are from a larger linguistic ethnography.


Arnaut, K., Bommaert, J., Rampton, B., & Spotti, M. (Eds.). (2015). Language and superdiversity. NY: Routledge.

Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Block, D., Gray, J., Holborow, M. (2012). Applied linguistics and neoliberalism. NY: Routledge.

Bodua-Mango, Kenneth. (2012). Coordinators in Safaliba. (Thesis, University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway).

Bodua-Mango, Ruth K. (2015). The phonology of a Safaliba three year old child. (Thesis, University of Ghana, Legon).

Bommaert, J., & Backus, A. (2012). Superdiverse repertoires and the individual. Tilberg Papers in Culture Studies, 24, pp. 1-32.

Borges, J. L. (1964). Dreamtigers. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2013). Translingual practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations London: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (2011). Language diversity, endangerment, and public awareness. British Academy Review, 18, pp. 12-20.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Djité, P. G. (2008). The sociolinguistics of development in Africa. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Reading the word and the world. London: Routledge.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism, and education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. (2015). Social linguistics and literacy: Ideology in discourses. NY: Routledge.

Gilens, M., & Page, B. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), pp. 564-581. DOI:10.1017/S1537592714001595

Goody, J., & Watt, I. (1963). The consequences of literacy. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5(3), pp. 304-345.

Gumperz, J. (1964). Linguistic and social interaction in two communities. American Anthropologist, pp. 137-153.

Gumperz, J., & Hymes, D. (1972/1986). (Eds.). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. London: Blackwell. ?

Herbert, Lloyd, & Sand (1979). Language survey report. GILLBT. Unpublished.

Horowitz, R. (2007). Creating discourse and mind: How talk, text, and meaning evolve. In R. Horowitz (Ed.), Talking texts: How speech and writing interact in school learning (pp. 3-53). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Huizinga, J. (1938/1971). Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kluge & Hatfield (1995). Sociolinguistic survey of the Safaliba area. SIL International.

Kretzschmar, W. (2015). Language and complex systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008). Complex systems and applied linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). (2015). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education.

Olson, D. (1977). From Utterance to Text: The Bias of Language in Speech and Writing. Harvard Educational Review, 47(3), pp. 257-281.

Otheguy, García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), pp. 281- 307. DOI: 10.1515/applirev-2015-0014

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2013). English, language dominance, and ecolinguistic diversity maintenance. In M. Filppula, J. Klemola, & D. Sharma, The Oxford handbook of world Englishes Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kress, G. (1997). Before writing: Rethinking the paths to literacy. London: Routledge.

Romaine, S. (2010). Contact and language death. In R. Hickey (Ed.), The handbook of language contact (pp. 320-339). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rosekrans, K., Author , & Chatry-Komarek, M. (2012). Education reform for the expansion of mother-tongue education in Ghana. International Review of Education, 58(5), pp. 593-618. DOI: 10.1007/s11159-012-9312-6

Schaefer, P. (2008a). Safaliba syntax in Principles and Parameters Theory. (Academic Seminar Week: Proceedings of the 2005 and 2006 Seminars) GILLBT Working Papers 2:27-41.

Schaefer, P. (2008b). “Focus” markers: Theory and application to Safaliba. (Academic Seminar Week: Proceedings of the 2005 and 2006 Seminars) GILLBT Working Papers 2:45-55.

Schaefer, P. (2008c). Safaliba pronoun forms and participant reference. (Academic Seminar Week: Proceedings of the 2005 and 2006 Seminars) GILLBT Working Papers 2:76-79.

Schaefer, P. & Schaefer, J. (2003). Collected field reports on the phonology of Safaliba. (Collected Language Notes, 25) Legon, Ghana: Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana.

Schaefer, P. (2009). Narrative storyline marking in Safaliba: Determining the meaning and discourse function of a typologically-suspect pronoun set. (Dissertation, University of Texas at Arlington). Retrieved from

Schaefer, P. (2015). Hot eyes, white stomachs: Emotions and character qualities in Safaliba metaphor. In E. Piirainen & A. Sherris (Eds.), Language endangerment: Disappearing metaphors and shifting conceptualizations (pp. 91-110). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI: 10.1075/clscc.7

Schaefer, P. & Schaefer, J. (2004). Verbal and Nominal Structures in Safaliba. Studies in the Languages of the Volta Basin II. In M.E. Kropp Dakubu & E.K. Osam, Languages of the Volta Basin II, (183-201). Legon, Ghana: Department of Linguistics, University of Ghana.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author (2009). Talmudic pair work: A hermeneutic approach to language teacher education. Paper presented in the symposium entitled Responding to the needs of language teachers: Reconceptualizing professional development at the Sixth International Conference on language Teacher Education, Washington, DC.

Author (2010). Leadership et formation mutuelle parmi les enseignants: le cas du Ghana. In M. Chatry-Komarek (Coordonee), Professionnaliser les enseignants de multilingues en Afrique (pp. 111-131). Paris: L’Harmattan.

Author (2013). Re-envisioning the Ghanaian ecolinguistic landscape: Local illustration and literacy. Intercultural Education, 24(4), pp. 348-354. DOI: 10.1080/ 14675986.2013.812402

Author , Sulemana, S., Alhasan, A., Abudu, G., & Karim, A. (2014). School for Life in Ghana: Promoting literate opportunities for rural youth. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(7), pp. 692-708. DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2014.908891

Author (2015, October). Resisting oppression: The case for outsider languages. In A. Sherris (Chair), Resisting dominant discourses: Pathways to literacy in outsider indigenous Ghanaian languages. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the First School of Languages Conference on Multilingualism in the African Context: Resource or challenge? University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana.

Author , & Burns, M. S. (2015). New border crossings for the interaction hypothesis: The effects of feedback on Gonja speakers learning English in a rural school in Ghana. Pedagogies: An International Journal. DOI: 10.1080/1554480X.2015.1050026

Author , Pete, T., & Haynes, E. (2015). Literacy and language instruction: Flathead Salish metaphor and a task-based pedagogy for its revitalization. In E. Piirainen & A. Sherris (Eds.), Language endangerment: Disappearing metaphors and shifting conceptualizations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Author , & Robbins, J. (2015). Transitional Turtle Soup: Reconceptualizing Mikasuki Language Acquisition Planning In M. C. Jones Policy and planning for endangered languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Snow, C., Griffin, P., & Burns, S. (2005). Knowledge to support the teaching of reading: Preparing teachers for a changing world. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Street, B. (1995). Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.

Thomason, S. (2001). Language contact: An introduction. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

United Nations General Assembly. Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Accessed March, 13, 2016.



How to Cite

Sherris, A. (2017). Talk to Text Safaliba Literacy Activism: Grassroots Ghanaian Educational Language Policy. Writing & Pedagogy, 9(1), 163–195.



Reflections on Practice