Category Archives: Language and culture

The Anthropology/Poetry Nexus–An Interview with Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

Can artists and social scientists inhabit the same universe?

Melisa (“Misha”) Cahnmann-Taylor embodies that nexus.

Her advanced degrees include an MFA in poetry . . . and a PhD in educational linguistics.

She’s published plenty of scholarly work in academic journals and books (about language learning, sustainable or fragile states of bilingualism, and teacher education) . . . and plenty of poems in literary journals.

She uses poetic and theatrical exercises to teach everyone from young children to future English language teachers.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (in black, with hat) running a poetry program at an elementary school in Cajones, Mexico


Misha’s professional quest is to understand the complexities of U.S. bilingual education, second language teaching, and world language education . . . and, more broadly, the intersections between language, culture, identity, class, and power.  She dubs her work, “scholARTistry,” which she sees as spanning linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (back row, left) celebrating writing bilingual and trans-lingual creative writing with participants in a workshop for students held in Guanajuato, Mexico; sponsored by the Richard Ruiz Residency Scholar Program (a fellowship program for scholar-artists through the U of Arizona Resplandor program) 


Misha began her career as a bilingual (Spanish/English) elementary educator in south-central Los Angeles and went on to teach and conduct research among Latino/a communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Mexico City.  She now works with bilingual youth and their families in Georgia, where she is Professor of Language and Literacy Education in the College of Education at the University of Georgia.

As a teacher, Misha seeks a humanistic approach–one that honors lived experience, and that cultivates the potential for cross-cultural dialogue and deep listening in and out of the classroom.  Some of her pedagogical activities are inspired by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal’s development of a Theatre of the Oppressed.  A book that Cahnmann-Taylor co-authored on Teachers Act Up! Creating Multicultural Learning Communities through Theatre explores the potential for theatre to inform teaching.


Misha also incorporates poetry at every level of teaching.

A student’s edited poem done in a workshop taught by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor


Misha brings her creative approach to the classroom in training pre-service Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages [TESOL], foreign language teachers, and K-12 English language arts teachers.  To these different constituencies, she offers a wide array of courses on topics ranging from Spanish-language children’s literature and bilingualism/bilingual education to theatre for reflective language teachers, poetry for creative educators, and trans-lingual memoir.  

From her inspirational instruction, Misha received a national teaching award in 2015, the Beckman Award for Professors Who Inspire.  In 2016, she directed her first National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read – Jeffers Program.”

A moment with Edgar Allen Poe, while Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (center) directed her second Big Read-Jeffers Program for the National Endowment for the Arts 


You can find Misha’s university webpage here and her page here.  And you can follow her pedagogically oriented blog (Teachers Act Up–Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change) here.

One academic home that’s helped Misha unite the poetic and social scientific sides of her identity is the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.  Having won the Ethnographic Poetry Award from their journal, Anthropology and Humanism, Misha is now Dell Hymes’ successor as poetry editor for the journal, and she judges their annual poetry contest.  In her life as a poet, Misha has won a Leeway Poetry Grant in 2001 and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2005.

Her book, Imperfect Tense: Poems was recently published by Whitepoint Press (2016).  

Many of the poems in this book reflect on what Cahnmann-Taylor learned while serving in 2013-14 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Oaxaca (Mexico), where she researched American adults’ Spanish language acquisition.  In a pre-publication assessment of the book, distinguished poet Thomas Lux wrote: 

“These poems are about language and are brilliant evocations of what it is like to be human in a world that seems to make that more and more difficult. This is an original and powerful book.”

I recently interviewed Misha about Imperfect Tense.  Have a read (AG = Alma Gottlieb; MCT = Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor):


AG: Given your training as a social scientist, why do you (also) write poetry?

MCT:  One answer is that I was mentored and inspired–directly or indirectly–by creative scholars and anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Renato Rosaldo, Fred Erickson, Nancy Hornberger, Ivan Brady, Gloria Anzaldúa, Augusto Boal, you, and others who maintained lives as creative people . . . and whose social science was better because of their engagement with music, image, metaphor, and vulnerability.  

Equally true is that I write poetry because it’s how I’m built.  I use the tools of an anthropologist to listen deeply, and see and process what I’m experiencing and what I’ve learned from others’ scholarship.  I also use the tools in which I was trained as an artist.  Metaphor, image, meter, rhyme, stanzaic structure–these aspects of craft and form help me shape what Robert Bly referred to as a “leaping consciousness,” one that is unafraid to go back and forth between the head and the heart.  I can’t help but want to “feel” data and find the right words in the right order.  With any luck, my poems may also help others feel the compressed complexity of human experience through lyric form.


AG: Does writing poetry also inform your ethnographic writing?

MCT:  Only now, so many years after writing about “arts-based research” (culminating in a book I co-edited, Arts-Based Research in Education:Foundations for Practice), have I begun to defy separation between these two genres and look at them both as forms of “trans” writing–writing that’s often trans-lingual and trans-genre.  Writing poetry has helped me clarify and claim my own voice as a poet scholar, or “scholartist”–one who wants to move away from tired explanations of method and theory.  

That said, when I wrote my 2013-14 Fulbright application to study adult North Americans’ Spanish language acquisition in Mexico through poetry, I did so with trepidation, as well as a healthy dose of “conventional” methodology–interviews, planned participant-observation.  I went into the field to collect ethnographic data much like any conventional anthropologist.  

Observing Jonathan Blasi teaching Spanish to an adult American language learner in Oaxaca


But doing so as a poet, perhaps, also meant that I was open to the unconventional, that my fieldnotes and poetry notes intermingled, and that the ethnography study I might also write might never get written.  The poems felt more accomplished than my ethnographic prose writing.  That said, there was one interview that I found too big and too important to compress into a single poem or series of poems.  This is why I took up ethnographic playwriting and wrote my first play.  But I don’t think I’ll do that again because it requires a commitment to working with staged readings and theatre companies that I just don’t have.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I prefer poems because I can craft them virtually alone.  


AG: Ha, yes, that’s probably something many poets might identify with.

Many of the poems in your new book have a “meta” foundation—they address different aspects of language itself, from being bilingual, or trying but failing to learn another language, to nuances of modal verbs and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Can you talk about the grammatically-themed title to this collection—“Imperfect Tense”?

MCT: The title is a direct result of an interview with an English-speaking, American woman I met in Oaxaca, Mexico in her 60s who described her own painful process toward the never-ending goal of “fluency” in Spanish.  Like many of those I interviewed, she was disappointed with traditional language classes for foreigners where verb tenses are taught in isolation.  She told me how accomplished she felt when she could describe a film she’d seen all in the “imperfect tense” rather than in the present or fixed past–a tense that doesn’t exist in English.  “The imperfect is so good for telling stories,” she said.  

I got a chills as soon as she’d said it.  That’s it!  What we tell ourselves as language learners are all stories of imperfection–I’ll never know enough, I’m not a good enough student, I’m not native–all these negative messages we tell ourselves and others.  These seemed to help me better understand the grit of those who study a second language in spite of the hardships–it’s a reckoning with permanent imperfection.  


AG: I love that.


MCT: In putting together the book manuscript, I had poems from earlier phases of my life as a bilingual teacher, a bilingual daughter, and future aspirations as a bilingual mother.  So the “past” and “ever-present” tenses seemed like good additions to the “imperfect” for drawing together different sections of the book and the poems that have composed my life.  

I should add that I’m teaching a course now on “translingual writing” and work toward changing my language from describing “bilingualism,” implying two separate codes, towards translingualism or code-meshing.  I’m grateful to Suresh Canagarajah for inspiring this movement.  Translingualism helps me grapple with my own imperfect command of Spanish, English, Yiddish, and other codes that transgress my system.


AG: The notion of “translingual” writing seems especially apt these days, with so many conversations about “transgendered” identities.

At the same time, another set of poems in this book addresses mothering, child-rearing, and childhood.  

A somatic statement on the politics of motherhood


The poem, “Mother Less, Mother More,” especially blew me away (and I love your dramatic reading of the poem, online here):

I can imagine that poem speaking to any mother, anywhere—no small feat.  If you agree, would you still see this poem as ethnographic?  Or do you think a poem must treat a culturally specific experience in order to qualify as “ethnographic”?

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor with her daughter in Mexico


MCT: That is a very good question, and quite a compliment.  That poem was published in a journal called “Mom Egg Review: Literature & Art” that targets mothers as its primary audience, so I was happy that this poem was showcased there.  While its audience, if I’m lucky, may find it compelling to mothers in general, its trigger is partly personal (I have two small children ages 8 & 10), but also ethnographic.  My training was in the Department of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania founded by Dell Hymes.  I was informed by many linguistic anthropologists, including Elinor Ochs and Shirley Bryce Heath, who drew my attention to the different ways language is used according to race, class, gender, age, and a host of other variables.  

If I were restricting myself to terms current in linguistic anthropology now, I might replace “motherese” in the above excerpt with “caregiver speech” or “infant-directed speech.”  But that’s head language and not poetry.  And this is a poem, not ethnographic prose.  Or is it?

I had poems informed by theory, by the many academic disciplines in which I was trained, and the permission that making art has given me to defy boundaries and write it! (a nod to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”), anyhow.  I trusted that coherence between individual poems would happen.  It took quite a while, but the centering work of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico gave me the backbone I needed to hold these varied language poems together in one book’s spine.


AG: They do hold together, even as another set of poems in this collection addresses your experiences with Judaism.  Religion is a classic topic for anthropology.  Why have you chosen the genre of poetry to write about it?  Do you think there are things you can say about Judaism (or any other religion)—or ways to say it—that work better through poetry than through social science?


MCT:  For me, the theme in this book is imperfection.  Speaking a “standard language,” or becoming a “good mother,” or abiding by the tenets of one’s “religion”–these are all socially constructed roles which privilege an unattainable ideal.  The poems are informed by interviews, participant-observation, library research, theory, and of course life experience.  I would say that choosing to write religious poems was the choice made by my unconscious mind, a choice I might not have made had I restricted myself to writing only about my ethnographic focus of Spanish-English bilingualism.


AG: Can you compare your process of writing scholarly texts (including the research necessary ahead of time) with the process of writing poems (whether or not this ever involves “research” for you)?  Any overlap, or are they two entirely different processes?

MCT:  Earlier, I said that I am taking advantage of aging into a voice that isn’t one or the other but is always both.  This may also be due to restrictions in the time I find I can spend doing extensive, planned fieldwork abroad, and to the increase in time I spend researching communities around me.  Recently, I have been teaching poetry courses to international students enrolled in graduate-level TESOL programs [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages].  They will return to their home countries to teach English, and I am teaching them to consider their own poetic voice and those of their future students.  

Misha also incorporates drawing as a visual complement to writing in her pedagogy; here, students drawing on the streets of Oaxaca


Studying this process involved collecting data in the form of interviews, but also these students’ poems as well as my own poetic response to the shared educational experience.  I am constantly searching for ways to merge my thinking and my poetic voice.  Recently, I did this in a “manifesto” I wrote for a journal called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal.  I needed a new genre as a way to find language for grappling with #BlackLivesMatter as a white, female academic.  Finding this journal and their open call for the “manifesto” form felt like finding a “home”–one I didn’t know existed but have been seeking.


AG: That “manifesto” genre is an unusual one for a scholar.  Did having anthropologist-poet role models like the ones you mentioned earlier help give you courage to explore new writing styles? 

MCT: I feel so “at home” when I meet members of this hybrid tribe.  I began to find community through the Society of Humanistic Anthropology where I first met Dell Hymes in person and was awarded the ethnographic poetry prize so many years ago.  


Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor receiving Ethnographic Poetry Award from Alma Gottlieb (president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology), November 2003


Then I became a judge for this prize, and not long after, Ather Zia came to my attention. She was one of the prize winners, and she has been a dear companion and now co-judge ever since.  Nomi Stone, Adrie Kusserow, and Dana Walrath are some of the many other poetic anthropologists I’ve met through various meetings, often organized by the late, great Kent Maynard who I will forever miss since his early passing.

I continue to be drawn to panels at AAA that address creative crossings and genre bendings. At this last year’s 2017 meeting, I met wonderful poets and poetic anthropologists through the This Anthro Life [podcast series] and the wonderful new Sapiens [blog] from Wenner Gren.  I’m also newly connecting with ethnographic songwriters like Kristina Jacobsen, as well as with ethnographic fiction writers and ethnographic dancers.  My new heroes are often younger than I am, pushing and changing the field, daring to do things that might have felt impossible or taboo to do earlier.  


AG: What’s next?  More poetry?  More anthropological writings?  Both?

MCT:  I just came out with a second edition of my co-edited book on “arts-based research” as I continue to articulate what it means to create new transdisciplinary work spaces that sit between the social sciences and the arts.  I keep my creative writing alive, and I am open to more poems as well as finding new spaces for trans-genre writing that is both empirical and aesthetic.  

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (second from right) leading students and colleagues from the Autonomous University of Oaxaca at a poetry reading at the Oaxaca Lending Library


Finally, I am still doing some conventional qualitative inquiry, especially as I mentor students. It’s very important to me not to lose touch with the nuts and bolts provided by theory and ethnographic research design.


AG: As a scholar-poet, have you found a space in the academy that accommodates that dual career?  Or, do you bifurcate these parts of your life into two separate career tracks?  Based on your own experience, how would you advise young scholar-poets to construct their professional lives in the present moment of the academy?

MCT:  In the last chapter of our new book, Arts-based Research in Education, I answer this question.  I am tired of bifurcation and am teaching new generations of students to defy binaries.  They push and pull, and I push and pull back, and this is happening in different ways in creative writing, the arts, and social sciences both in the U.S. and around the world.  Based on my experience, I train students to strive to do “double”–to train in conventional research methods and theory as well as in poetry or other creative genres, and discover ways they can fuse them.  In this way, they can play more than one game, to be able to get through the dissertation process and find a job in various possible homes.  

But I feel I have a lot to learn from daring and younger scholars who won’t necessarily seek or find the same kind of academic jobs I was prepared for, and that I uphold.  Based on my experience, I encourage younger “scholartists” to take my advice . . . but I know that only 50% or less will be relevant for them, their particular identity, and the new market in which they find themselves.  To be relevant means to be present in the moment as you learn all about what has come before.  My job is to nurture confidence and humility, and try to exercise those skills myself as my students continue to teach me about unknown futures.  The poet in me tries to train the pedagogue to share what I have learned, but also to invite students to surprise me with what they know or can newly conceive.  

Interview with Perry Gilmore about “Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki”

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

Kisisi Cover

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016


When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore


AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors to and co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaragua, twin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate


AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!


AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.


AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses


AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.


AG Update: Check out the fabulous review of Kisisi here.