How exactly will impending law on how we speak be enforced?

Chantrel KoKo

Congolese refugee Chantrel KoKo teaches French in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on April 20, 2017.

Photo credit: Tasso Marcelo | AFP

What you need to know:

  • We are required to teach our language learners the basic skills of effective speech, ranging from pronunciation, stress and intonation to public delivery.
  • A lot of English people speak very poor English, and we do not want our learners to speak like them.

I need urgent legal advice. I am sure my many friends and faithful readers in the legal profession will be willing to assist.

I am a language teacher, as you know, yet, curiously, I started my academic career surrounded by lawyers, some in formation, some already in the early stages of their eventually illustrious careers as jurists.

The Dar es Salaam Campus of the then University of East Africa, where I was, housed the only full-fledged Law Faculty in the region.

This is why the list of my undergraduate contemporaries tends to sound like a who-is-who in East African jurisprudence. But I will not liberally name-drop today.

Let me only send my greetings to all my Dar comrades and agemates, represented by Senior Counsel Valeria Onyango, Senator Amos Wako and Justices Andrew Hayanga and Richard Otieno Kwach.

Expressive precision

Living, interacting and growing up with such distinguished minds and brains persuaded me that, behind their fiercely incisive approach to issues and their insistence on expressive precision, the best lawyers are deeply humane and sympathetic to the foibles of us ordinary mortals.

The law students’ preoccupation with language drew me to them. 

Many Latinisms

It even endeared several of them to me.

Remember, they were struggling, as other law students still do, to master the many Latinisms (like ab initio, amicus curiae, de facto, de jure, habeas corpus, qui tacet consentit, res judicata) that are codes for key concepts in their profession.

Thus, while I, as a linguistics scholar, was studying language almost for its own sake, my legal counterparts were following it keenly as a necessary tool for their professional competence.

But with many lawyers, this interest in and love of language often surpasses their purely legal interests.

 You thus find several distinguished lawyers, like Prof Issa Shivji, my friend James Ogolla, Uganda’s former Chief Judge, and our Mzee Pheroze Nowrojee, all with close connections to Dar, producing sublime literary and poetic works.

But let us get back to the help I need from these learned sages.

Gender discrimination

The problem started in France, but I can see it coming rapidly to Kenya and the rest of the world.

There is a law in the making, a bill that will make it an offence to discriminate against people on grounds of their accent.

In other words, treating people differently because of the way they speak (English or Kiswahili, for example) will be a violation of the law, comparable to racial, religious, ethnic or gender discrimination.

It all started with a prominent French politician ridiculing and humiliating a journalist who asked him a question in what the politician considered an unacceptable “provincial” accent.

This highly incensed progressive activists, including some parliamentarians, who decided to draft and table in parliament the bill against “glottophobia”, as they call discriminatory attitudes based on the way people speak.

Now, that sounds quite fair and rational.

After all, we live in egalitarian and pluralistic societies, and we should discourage all forms of discrimination and sectarianism.

‘Shrubs’ of speech

I am sure our own National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCEC) will be interested in ensuring that none of our citizens is disadvantaged by the way they speak.

You know what we are talking about, those “shrubs” of speech out of which we derive a lot of mischievous humour. How do you say “carrying a pack on my back”? Is it a fish, a fizz or a “fis” that you want? Did you say you were “aloud” or “around”?

The variations are infinite.

The basic questions raised by prospective anti-glottophobia legislation are, first, on exactly what criteria do we decide that a person is being discriminated against on grounds of his or her accent?

Secondly and more practically, should we let everyone and anyone “speak English any way they like”, as Professor Higgins puts it in My Fair Lady?

Social contract

If you were hiring people for broadcasting or call centre jobs, would you not consider any differences between those who can and those who cannot tell or execute the difference between r and l, or those who drop their aitches or insert their ns everywhere?

After all, language is a social contract, and there has to be some basic agreement on how we use it for effective communication.

For us language teachers, the law would leave us in a real dilemma.

We are required to teach our language learners the basic skills of effective speech, ranging from pronunciation, stress and intonation to public delivery.

Indeed, my colleagues, Prof Martin Njoroge of USIU and novelist and teacher Pasomi Mucha, have written a book, Spot On Oral Skills, trying to guide learners on these matters.

Our approach is not to teach the learners to “speak like English people”.

After all, we do not speak like the English, and nemo dat quod non habet (you cannot give what you do not have), as the lawyers say.

Standard usage

Secondly, a lot of English people speak very poor English, and we do not want our learners to speak like them.

Indeed, in My Fair Lady (which is based on Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion), one of Prof Higgins’ complaints is “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”

This is because every language user in a broad linguistic community is expected to attain and adhere to certain levels of expectations that we call “standard usage”.

In English speech we call this “RP” or received pronunciation.

Whatever your regional, social or generational variety or accent is, you are expected to approximate your speech to this expectation.

Could an insistence on this be a violation of anti-glottophobia legislation?

The unfortunate complication with English is that every accent is snobbishly associated with social class distinctions, and in the case of Kenya, ethnic divisions.

As Higgins, our speaker of the day, would put it, no English (or Kenyan) person can open their mouth without making another English (or Kenyan) person judge them.

That is where I, the language teacher, hand over to NCEC and the lawyers, as I rest my case.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.