International Mother Language Day: What tongue will you be?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Renowned author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o gestures during an interview with the Nation on February 7, 2019. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Most of us in Kenya and elsewhere in this region “are” more than one language.
  • Scientific linguistics insists that a language is an acquired social skill.

Monday, February 21, will be International Mother Language Day (IMLD). We will celebrate this year’s day in many venues and fora, under the theme: “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities”.

I will follow a UNESCO webinar on the topic, where I expect our Doyen of home language advocacy, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to make a significant contribution. We may also hear from our indefatigable author and campaigner for Ekegusii, my friend Jane Bosibori Obuchi. Mother Language Day is, however, an occasion for all of us to reflect on our own language awareness, experiences and practices.

“What language are you?” This little question intrigues me because of both its apparent simplicity, even innocence, on the one hand, and its almost infinite complexity on the other. Our children invented the formula in the 1970s, to avoid using “tribe”, which was offensive, as we rightly told them. We had wanted them to say “community” instead, but that was too heavy for their young tongues.

Thus, then, language became our identity. The fun part of this is imagining a person being a language. The tantalising part is how you choose what language to be, or to call yourself. After all, most of us in Kenya and elsewhere in this region “are” more than one language. If you asked me today what language I “am”, I might answer, with conviction, that I am “Swahilugenglish”.

The heavy coinage is a compound of Kiswahili, Luganda and English, the three languages in which I do most of my day-to-day living. You may want to compare it with “Swahikambenglish” or “Engluoswahili”. But even these are simplifications. In my case, for example, I am also passably “Francophone” and I admit to a smattering of the ancient classical languages. If I were to put all these in a compound coinage, it would be unpronounceable, if imaginable.

The point is that language, our primary communication tool, is a remarkably complex and multi-layered structure and we should approach it with a great deal of prudence and clear-mindedness. Speaking of “mother languages”, for example, is problematic on a few counts. It may be criticised as sexist (why not “father language” or “parent language”). Secondly, it smacks of the fallacy that a person’s language is inborn or sucked from the breast, as folk beliefs have it.

Highly emotive phenomenon

Scientific linguistics insists that a language is an acquired social skill. An ethnic Chinese child raised in an entirely Kiswahili-speaking environment would learn and speak only Kiswahili. Nor would such a child find it easier learning Chinese than any other person coming from a non-Chinese environment. What is inborn in human beings is only the psychomotor equipment or ability to acquire a language. Their specific language is picked up from their environment.

That said, however, we must admit that language cannot be treated at a purely scientific level. It is a highly emotive and emotional phenomenon and language professionals must cater for the users’ feeling about it. This partly explains the institution of observations like International Mother Language Day, formalised by UNESCO in 1999.

It is in memory of the protestors who were killed on January 21, 1952 by the Pakistan security forces, in what is Bangladesh today. The demonstrators were demanding their right to use their own Bengali language, instead of Urdu, which had been imposed on them.

In colonial and postcolonial Africa, where the languages of our European colonisers were clamped on us, turning us into “this-phone” and “that-phone”, language has always been a highly emotional and controversial issue.

There might be a plausible argument that the imported languages unite us across our ethnicities and connect us to the wider world. But against this is the incontrovertible reality that these colonial languages brainwash us and alienate us from our African identity.

Little wonder, then, that the best of our thinkers, writers and scholars are turning aggressively towards our home languages, as I prefer to call them, and practically demonstrating their value and validity in building a truly decolonised Africa.

Our home language

It is an uphill task, as our languages have been largely ignored and even systematically suppressed over the decades. Even more sinister is the colonial hangover (kasumba ya ukoloni) among significant sections of our people, including policy makers, who still believe that only what is said in English or French is serious.

Still, I stand with those who valiantly struggle to express themselves in the languages in which our ancestors “lived, laughed, loved, cried and died”, as one famous author has put it. But I would urge all of us to go beyond emotions and embrace both the scientific and practical approach to our entire linguistic situation, in three specific aspects.

First, we appreciate the fact that language policies are not happenings but processes, always changing and adapting to social, historical, economic and other developments. Our current situation is that we are multilingual, with our home languages, Kiswahili and English playing significant roles in our communication activities. The challenge is to strike a productive balance among the three components at all appropriate levels.

Secondly, we need to get practical rather than nostalgic about our home languages. Like all living things, languages are in competition, and the most robust and dynamic will survive. We need to research our languages, teach them and produce adequate materials in them, in print, electronic and digital media. This means that we have to be (self)-educated in these languages. As things are now, our knowledge of our languages goes little beyond what we picked up on the village paths before we went out to the big places.

Finally, we need to commit ourselves to insistent and persistent advocacy for our home languages, including Kiswahili. Policy makers must be constantly pushed to allocate funds and formulate and implement adequate language action in education, administration and all areas of public affairs. We call this mainstreaming, and it is a major tactic in transformational action.

Lugha na ndimi zetu na zidumu milele (may our languages and tongues last forever).

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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