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ETSU professor heading to Kenya to record Kisii language

Contributed • Jan 18, 2019 at 5:06 PM

East Tennessee State University’s Dr. Martha Michieka is spending much of the spring semester in Kenya to collect spoken data of the Kisii language – a language spoken in the southwestern part of Kenya.

The professor of English in ETSU’s Department of Literature and Language says that while the Kisii language is not yet endangered because it still has numerous native speakers who use it in their homes, it is threatened because it is not used for instruction beyond the first three years of school or in any official functions.

“Once users of the language get through early primary school, they transition to English, and that is what is used all the way through the university level,” Michieka said. “And so there is a tendency to leave it behind, and if we continue doing this for a while, we will just forget it. Although it has several native speakers, if it is not coded, it will finally become endangered.”

That is what Michieka intends to do during her sabbatical leave when she will collect spoken language and its discourse markers.

“While I’m there, I will adopt a participant observation method,” she said. “I will be involved in the activities of the village, because I know the people there. I will attend various civic and religious meetings and record spoken language.”

“My ultimate goal is to develop pedagogical materials in the Kisii language. If I wanted to teach Kisii here as a foreign language, I would then have materials to use. It does have a dictionary that was published in 2013, and a few translations such as the Bible and some Christian hymns, so if I can start with some pedagogical materials, that would be a big contribution to the community.”

Michieka is also a recipient of a fellowship awarded by the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program that will support her research. Through this fellowship, she will work with Kisii University to forge research collaboration with faculty and graduate students.

This project is part of a broader initiative pairing fellows with 43 higher education institutions and collaborators in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda to work together on curriculum co-development, research, graduate teaching, training and mentoring activities.

The Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, now in its sixth year, is designed to increase Africa’s brain circulation, build capacity at the host institutions, and develop long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations between universities in Africa and the United States and Canada. It is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and managed by the Institute of International Education in collaboration with United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, which coordinates the activities of the Advisory Council.

In addition to teaching, Michieka serves the Department of Literature and Language as director of the Honors-in-Discipline Program in English. The recipient of ETSU’s 2014 Distinguished Faculty Award in Service speaks often about Kenyan culture in Tri-Cities area schools, sharing lessons about her native language and tastes of her native cuisine.

Michieka received her bachelor’s degree in education at Kenyatta University, Kenya, and her master’s and doctoral degrees at Purdue University.

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