Palenquero-Spanish bilingualism


In the Afro-Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque, Spanish is in contact with the ancestral Afro-Hispanic creole language known to linguists as Palenquero and to the speakers themselves as Lengwa ri Palenge `the language of Palenque.' Retained for several centuries as a legacy of cultural resistance, the Palenquero language was reduced to an object of ridicule in the early 20th century as linguistic and cultural contacts with neighboring communities became commonplace and as Palenqueros sought employment opportunities outside of their village. Considered an endangered language as recently as two decades ago, Lengua ri Palengue has experienced a remarkable renovation through community activism and educational programs, and most Palenqueros now regard their ancestral language with pride. The renewed vigor of the language—now being taught to young people in the village’s schools and spoken without reluctance by older residents—has been supplemented by numerous visits by anthropologists, linguists, and Afro-diaspora activists from around the world, which has led to an enhanced metalinguistic awareness among many community members. Community-wide acquisition of a creole as a second language by native speakers of the original lexifier language is a rare occurrence but recent attitudinal changes in Palenque, coupled with the implementation of Palenquero language classes, have resulted in three groups of speakers which taken together potentially offer new insights into bilingualism. There are older native speakers of Palenquero who acquired Spanish as a second language during or past adolescence. There are also several hundred young native speakers of Spanish who have acquired varying degrees of proficiency in Palenquero as a second language. In so doing, these young speakers have putatively acquired grammatical paradigms that are simpler than those of Spanish, while being fully contained as a proper subset of Spanish. Finally, there is a large group of middle-aged residents who acquired Palenquero in childhood, but who due to stigmatization and discrimination gave up the language for most of their adult life. Many of these individuals, prompted by burgeoning community pride and the new popularity of Palenquero, are now attempting to recover a language that had lain dormant for decades. The current environment in San Basilio de Palenque thus offers the following combination: (1) bilingual contact between two languages with highly cognate lexicons but significantly different grammatical structures, with most of Palenquero morphosyntax being a proper subset of Spanish; (2) some language attrition in older Palenquero speakers who have become more proficient in Spanish than in the traditional language; (3) language recovery by middle-aged speakers who now actively speak a language that they had abandoned for several decades; (4) the acquisition of the cognate Spanish-lexified Palenquero as a second language by young native speakers of Spanish. My research in Palenque focuses primarily on the acquisition of Palenquero as a second language by native speakers of Spanish, and by the characteristics of Palenquero spoken as a recently rejuvenated heritage language. Since going from Spanish to the lexically cognate but morphologically less complex Palenquero in effect represents abandoning all Spanish agreement, Palenquero-Spanish bilingualism offers a promising research environment for examining the tradeoff between the on-line production of grammatical agreement and the automatization of agreement.


My research in Palenque has been partially supported by a grant from the Africana Research Center at Penn State and most recently by the National Science Foundation.



Palenquero sample 

NSF project summary           

NSF project abstract



Representative publications: