How young Santomean immigrants in Portugal manage their identity and language


“My teacher always says to me: ‘Ah Clara, Clara, Claaaara, you must speak like this! “‘

Clara is a young Santomean woman who immigrated to Portugal to continue her secondary education. She grew up in Sao Tome and Principe, a group of islands in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. She has been a key participant in my study about this immigrant experience.

Colonized by the Portuguese in the 1490s, the islands became independent in 1975. The new republic adopted Portuguese as its sole official language.

Today, Portuguese is the language spoken by more than 98% of the Santomean population. The rest are mostly elders who speak one of the four Creole languages. In the post-colonial era, Portuguese universities continued to receive students from Portuguese-speaking African countries.

Clara speaks Portuguese as her first and only language. But, she says, her teachers often comment on the way she speaks it. European Portuguese and Santomé Portuguese are very similar. They could be compared to British and American English. For example, there are differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure.

It comes as no surprise that Clara’s Portuguese teacher selects her for her pronunciation. It reflects the idea that one variety of language is superior to others. This has implications for people’s identity and sense of self.

In my study I have found that a crucial problem for Santomean students immigrating to Portugal is that identifying oneself as both native Portuguese speakers and as Black Africans means negotiating two potentially conflicting identities – in a place where the Most native speakers are white. This means that they also have to adapt to deal with racism.

Form identities

As a sociolinguist, my research set out to explore the use of Santomean Portuguese among young immigrants to Portugal and how this relates to their identity.

How do the Santomeans in Portugal negotiate being both native speakers of Portuguese and black Africans? Answering this question is essential for understanding the role language plays in the processes of creating racial boundaries and identity.

To answer the question, I conducted in-depth interviews with 18 young Santomean immigrants (7 women and 11 men) in two towns in central Portugal. Clara was one of them.

Identity is created on several levels at the same time. It only becomes meaningful when we engage in processes called alignment (Do I identify with this person?) And authentication (Is it real and genuine?). For example, think about your school or peer group experience and the different cliques that exist – nerds, popular kids, sports people, loners. All acquire a meaning in relation to other groups.

So how does Santomeans in Portugal identify with itself? My research has shown that young Santomeans identify at three levels: their language use and practices, racial categorization and the PALOP social category.

“PALOP” means Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa, which means Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa. It refers to the six African countries in which Portuguese is an official language – Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea. The Santomeans use this term to describe the inhabitants of these countries.

I have looked at each level of identity formation.

Language use and practices

You could say that Santomeans align linguistically with Portuguese nationals since they speak the same language. But from a Portuguese perspective, the variety of Portuguese spoken by African students is problematic. For Santomeans, a poor command of the language is often considered one of the main elements that hamper their academic success. Not being understood by the Portuguese hampers the integration of Santomeans.

But many Santomeans have found strategies to be understood by the Portuguese. The most common is imitation, pointed out by one of the study participants:

We have to speak in a way that they… like, try to imitate them so that they can understand us.

But even so, Santomeans said they were frequently reminded that they spoke differently based on three main characteristics: slang words, rate of speech, and different pronunciation of r sounds.

Based on these elements, the Santomeans did not feel aligned with the Portuguese nationals even though they spoke the same language.

Racial categorization

When it comes to racial categorization, Santomeans did not align himself with the Portuguese either, but with other African students.

For Santomeans, the racial conversations and practices in Portugal differed from their experiences at home. The emphasis in São Tomé was not on the common black / white distinction, but rather on the distinctions between local ethnolinguistic groups (groups unified by both a common ethnicity and language). All of these groups identified as black.

A few of the Santomean participants expressed how strange and uncomfortable it was for them to be part of a visible minority in Portugal. The Santomeans in Portugal learned that they were considered black and what that meant in a predominantly white society. This process was mostly pejorative, as there is little benefit to being Black in Portugal.

Portuguese speaking countries of Africa

Finally, there was the positioning of identity through the social category of belonging to a Portuguese-speaking African country. Here, the affiliation was not so clear.

Sometimes Santomeans included in the category and sometimes not. Santomeans often called Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa students as Portuguese-speaking Africans who also have a home language other than Portuguese. The Santomeans I interviewed lived with Guineans and Cabo Verdians, most of whom spoke of a Creole as mother tongue.

In contrast, most young Santomeans generally did not have a common language other than Portuguese. As such, Santomeans did not always align with other members of the Portuguese-speaking African country membership category when it comes to language use.

Why it matters

These results reflect two main divisions: authentic speakers and inauthentic speakers of Portuguese; and white against black.

What does this mean and why is it important?

Beliefs, probably perpetuated since colonial times, indicate that “genuine” speakers of Portuguese are white individuals and that “non-authentic” speakers of Portuguese are black individuals. But the Santomeans are blacks and speak Portuguese as their first (and often only) language. Therefore, young Santomeans immigrating to Portugal must adapt to align themselves with different categories according to their needs.

Read more: How the dimensions of human inequality affect who and what we are

My findings served to highlight the importance of race in the process of identity formation among these Santomeans. This creates challenges that can lead to lower academic performance and lower chances of getting a good job. Santomeans in Portugal learn that they are considered black and find out what that means in a predominantly white society.

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