Sociolinguist Cesar Cumbe visits Princeton

Monday, Apr 30, 2018

Photo of Professor Cumbe

During the week of April 16, the Department of French and Italian and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese cosponsored Cesar Cumbe’s week-long visit to Princeton with the help of the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education.

Cumbe is a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Maputo in Mozambique, and an affiliated researcher at the Observatory for Societies of the Indian Ocean, based on the French island of La Reunion.

“As a native of Mozambique, a country where over 20 languages are spoken and play different roles in people’s lives, I was exposed very early on in life to the ways in which issues of power, class, ethnicity, identity and gender are played out through language,” said Cumbe. “I grew up speaking three languages that were not taught or recognized at school, and had to learn Portuguese, which was the official language inherited from colonial times.”

To continue pursuing his education, Cumbe learned Spanish and French, “two languages that are major actors in the world.” His dedication paid off when the French government awarded him a full scholarship to study in a master’s program at the University of Montpellier; subsequently, Cumbe pursued his doctorate at La Sorbonne and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales under the direction of Beatrice Fraenkel.

Cumbe’s firsthand experience with language’s power to both advance and hinder influenced his decision to study sociolinguistics, specifically linguistic ideologies and landscapes. According to Cumbe, linguistic landscapes “look at the way words and images are displayed in public spaces, and at how and why some languages and images are used for both functional and symbolic reasons.”

Linguistic ideologies are “socially-constructed beliefs about languages — their nature, their value, their status — that have broad consequences in social life,” said Cumbe. “Believing that one language has less value than another, for example, may lead to unequal access to health and education, which might generate interethnic tensions and lead to discrimination and divisive identity politics.”

This semester, Christine Sagnier, senior lecturer in French and Italian, is teaching a French course titled “Language, Power and Identity”; she wanted to bring Cumbe to Princeton so her students could hear the perspective of someone who has experienced these realities.

“[Cumbe's] visit was a rare opportunity to hear from someone who has navigated the most complex of linguistic landscapes,” said Conner Johnson, a junior majoring in the Department of French and Italian and a student in Sagnier’s course. “I was amazed by the true linguistic complexity of daily life in Mozambique, and [Cumbe’s] ability to interweave the deeper, sociolinguistic questions of language and identity into his experiences.”

Johnson added, “His visit really highlighted how complicated identity is in post-colonial states due to the inherent blending of cultures that comes with the coexistence of many languages in the same space, and really gave an insightful lens for how we can reflect introspectively on our own cultures to better grasp all that pushes and pulls at the identities of those around us.”

Junior Rebecca Blevins, a psychology major, agreed. “When talking about the linguistic situation in different French-speaking countries, it is easy to misunderstand or misrepresent these realities without someone who comes from this place to share with you their reality,” she said. “[Cumbe’s] visit added a lot to my knowledge and appreciation of sociolinguistics, and was also crucial in the acknowledgement of diverse voices in the field, which I think we need more of.”

“Cumbe’s work on sociolinguistics and multilingualism and his ability to lecture in Portuguese, Spanish and French made him a unique candidate for such a cross-departmental project,” said Nicola Cooney, senior lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese and director of the Portuguese Language Program.

His work on writing in public spaces also ties closely with Cooney’s Portuguese course, which focuses on official and unofficial urban narratives and includes a section on Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo.

For both departments, Cumbe’s visit was the genesis behind a week full of multiculturalism and collaboration. French and Italian brought in Francesca Cozzolino, a specialist in social and cultural anthropology who, like Cumbe, works on linguistic landscapes.

Spanish and Portuguese put on its first “Mozambique Week,” which included Fábio Ribeiro, a filmmaker based in Maputo, and Professor Amy Schwartzott, a specialist in Mozambican contemporary art at North Carolina A&T State University.

“Professor Cumbe’s visit and Mozambique Week — with its influx of cultural critics and agents — resulted in rich dialogues that crisscrossed disciplines and regions. For students and faculty alike, new landscapes and perspectives were illuminated and brought to life by the original and socially committed work of these visiting scholars,” said Cooney. “It was an energizing experience for all involved and we sincerely hope that this is the first of many opportunities for intellectual exchange between Princeton and researchers from the African continent.”

Because the joint collaboration between French and Italian and Spanish and Portuguese was a success, the departments plan to launch “new projects involving other researchers with the goal of creating innovative synergies,” Sagnier said. “I am very grateful that my colleagues in SPO embarked on this adventure across departmental lines; we certainly hope to craft similar projects in the future.”