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the rogue linguist

The Great Refugee Language Fail

Where are you from? Refugee cartoon by Simon Kneebone

Image: Simon Kneebone

Innumerable refugees are bound to have their asylum applications botched because of false beliefs about language.

‘Joseph’ (1986) is an asylum seeker from Kigali, Rwanda. From his infancy his parents only spoke English with him. He later guessed that his father felt this ‘set us apart from other people and showed that we were more civilised’.

His mother was a Tutsi businesswoman whose work was based in Kenya, where she took him to an English-language nursery school. At the age of five Joseph returned to Rwanda with his mother.

Not long after, she was brutally murdered.

Joseph later learnt that his father, a politician possibly involved with Hutu radicalism, may have been complicit in the killing. In revenge, Tutsis attacked the house a few months later, killing his father and siblings.

Joseph managed to escape from a window. He found himself with some other refugees, who took him to a town called Gisenyi (on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where he had an uncle.

At his uncle’s house, Joseph lived in the basement. His uncle only spoke to him in English, but by eavesdropping on visitors he picked up some of what he calls ‘Kinyankole’ (Runyankole). Runyankole is a Bantu language mainly spoken in Uganda; this will become significant later in Joseph’s story.

He began running errands for his uncle, ferrying mysterious bags around. One day, aged around 9 or 10, he was arrested by Rwandan soldiers. The bag turned out to be loaded with weapons and ammunition.

Because he spoke Runyankole, the soldiers took Joseph to be a child soldier from across the border. They took him back to his uncle’s house, where they summarily executed the man.

Joseph himself was sent to prison in Kigali. There, over the course of about four years, he was repeatedly tortured and raped.

One day, while out on a work detail, a guard pointed him to a bush. A woman was waiting who looked vaguely familiar; later Joseph would guess she might be the woman who looked after him as an infant in Kenya. She took him on a bus ‘to another country’, where they went to an airport and boarded a flight.

This was how Joseph ended up in the UK. He was now around 14.


In his asylum rejection letter, the Home Office states:

The BBC World Service […] advises that a genuine Rwandan national from any of the ethnic groups will normally be able to speak Kinyarwanda and/or French. Kinyarwanda, the national language, is the medium of instruction in schools at primary level while French is used at secondary level.

The immigration officers ignored the fact that Joseph never went to school.

Ignored the dubiousness of the source on which they made their decision, which is surely no better than making life-or-death decisions based on Wikipedia (no offence to Wikipedia).

Ignored the fact that he was a small child when he left, and so unable to provide information like ‘the nearest bank to your home’.

They concluded:

It is the opinion that a Rwandan national should be expected to know something about their country of origin and place of birth. Moreover, it is believed that you could be a Ugandan national as result of your knowledge and use of the Runyankole language at screening […] Or, you could possibly be a national of a different East African country where English is much more widely spoken.

They ignored, too, the fact that Joseph is clearly a non-native speaker of Runyankole. He consistently refers to the language in his interviews as ‘Kinyankole’, the name given to it by Rwandans using it as a diasporic language, not Ugandans who speak it natively.

Regardless, the Home Office decided he was to be deported to Uganda.

‘I may have an unusual history,’ Joseph says, ‘but this does not make me a citizen of a country I have never been to.’


Joseph’s story was described by the sociolinguist Jan Blommaert back in 2010.(1) As Blommaert explains, the reasoning of the Home Office was based on a modernist, nationalist-linguistic ideology that is thoroughly simplistic and outdated (if it ever made sense at all).

This ideology links language to the territory of the nation state. ‘One people, one language, one nation’ is seen as a fact of nature. As a result, there is an expectation that someone ‘from’ somewhere must be competent in the language of that place. A standardised, literate variety of that language, no less.

This is a very modernist imagining, characterised by homogeneity, uniformity and order, which goes against the postmodern understanding of reality as hybrid, fluid and fractured.

Languages and people are not rooted to one spot. Instead, people have complex biographies and linguistic repertoires. And in a world in which more and more people can no longer be mapped onto neat categories, this modernist national-linguistic framework serves as an instrument of power and control.

In assessing refugees’ languages, the reasoning of the Home Office is simplistic and outdated Click To Tweet

Remember that Joseph’s childhood corresponds with a period of extreme crisis in the region, including the Rwandan genocide. Herein lies the catch 22 of the Home Office case.

A life dislodged, marked by chaos and violent conflict, is unlikely to result in a ‘normal’ linguistic repertoire. Only with literate French and Kinyarwanda could Joseph have convinced the immigration officers that he was Rwandan. Yet such an ordered repertoire would give the lie to his chaotic biography.

This case is not new, but with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe over the last couple of years, it is surely being repeated over and over; the reality of language use bumping up against a Kafkaesque national-linguistic ideology, making worse already shattered lives.

(1) Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: CUP.



Alison Edwards PhD

I am a linguistics researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. Read more

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