Of feelings and endless search for our language

Speech and Language Therapist Alison McLoughlin conducts a therapy session with a patient using the Zoom app in the at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital in Blackburn, north-west England on May 14, 2020,  PHOTO | HANNAH MCKAY | AFP)

What you need to know:

  • The ability of both constructing the right codes and interpreting them is deeply embedded in social and cultural contexts.
  • In our multilingual societies, the processes are frighteningly complicated.
  • We have to adjust our codes and interpretations correctly as we pass from one language to another.

In what language do you feel? To put it differently, in what language are you spontaneously inclined to express your deepest feelings? I need not elaborate on the importance of these considerations in these times of mounting horror, anxiety and sorrow.

Minute by minute, doses of bad and scary news assail our ears and our hearts. Just before I started writing this, I read from social media that at one single religious establishment in Michigan, USA, a clutch of nearly 20 nuns had died of Covid-19 within the space of one month. Many others at the convent were seriously ill.

In any case, we need not look beyond our borders for events that leave us, literally, bereft of words. I keep telling you that I would very much rather dwell on the good news stories in any situation. But when a serpent like Covid-19 strikes with deadly venom at our doctors, pilots and artists, our own ordinary people, I cannot turn a blind eye to the reality. I have to share the sorrow with you.

Risky behaviour

But how do I do that in these days when a hug or even the holding of a hand is risky behaviour? Moreover, a half of our faces, with which we express a tremendous lot, is hidden behind a mask. We only have the voice, the spoken word, however muted and muffled.

“Makiwa!”, for example, has been the word on my tongue this week as I was trying to console my friends on the loss of our beloved “Papa Shirandula”, Charles Bukeko. It is a Kiswahili expression with which we share our sympathy with members of a bereaved family. Indeed, we use it as a “greeting” on arrival at the mourning home. It probably comes from the word “ukiwa”, which means “desolation, abandonment, ultimate loneliness”.

Now, this is a form of language politeness that I have spontaneously used ever since I picked it up decades ago as I was socialised into the Kiswahili-speaking community. I had not thought objectively about it until I realised, from a number of responses, that it did not automatically convey my feelings to quite a number of my acquaintances, especially of the younger generations. As far as they were concerned, I had not expressed my sympathy until I had added the simple and generalised “pole/poleni sana”.

This underlines a crucial problem in language learning and language teaching. Knowing a language means much more than simply mastering its vocabulary and grammar.

 These basics are certainly important, but far more important is the user’s ability to understand and apply the language appropriately in specific social contexts. The expressions of strong feelings are only one illustration of subtle and complex nature of this problem.

Linguistic communication

Linguistic communication, you see, is a matter of coding and decoding. The speaker sends a signal and the hearer interprets it and responds appropriately. The ability of both constructing the right codes and interpreting them is deeply embedded in social and cultural contexts.

 In our multilingual societies, the processes are frighteningly complicated. We have to adjust our codes and interpretations correctly as we pass from one language to another.

On hearing of the death of an acquaintance, for example, a speaker of English may say, “What a shame!” To a speaker of Kiswahili, the literal meaning or structure of that would not necessarily convey a sense of sorrow or sympathy. What “shame” is there over a bereavement?

Such problems of coding and decoding are, indeed, what makes so-called machine or AI translations either hilariously inaccurate or downright nonsensical.

But for the language learner and the language teacher, the challenge is how to fully appreciate all their important sociocultural contexts and apply the appropriate language to them.

These are not theoretical matters. They affect our everyday lives. In concrete terms, in what languages do we pray, mourn, quarrel, apologise or make love? Ashakum (as we say in Kiswahili when we overstep the bounds)! You need a very wide and profound exposure to the language in which you are going to live and negotiate your relationships.

If our knowledge of a language is shallow and fragmentary, our attempts to live in it will be shallow and fragmentary. How strongly, for example, do you bond with your God when you pray in English, Kiswahili or your home language, say Lusamia?

But here, exactly, is where the challenge lies, both for the language policymaker and the language teacher. If we adopt a trilingual policy, assuming that every educated citizen will speak a home language, Kiswahili and English, how do we ensure that this citizen gets sufficient exposure and training in each of these languages to ensure competence in all real life situations?

Merely stipulating that we will teach such and such a language to this or that “level” (grade) of education, and then leave the users to their own devices, will simply not do.

A clash

This is all the more complicated as our education process almost always entails transitions through various language environments, which often clash with one another.

A classic example is the school situation where the use of our home languages (including Kiswahili), often labelled “vernaculars” in derogatory colonial parlance, is discouraged, banned and even punished as backward, divisive, sectarian and anti-cohesion.

 When, where and how are we going to acquire the competence we need in them beyond the level where the classroom teaching ends?

Nor does English, privileged as it might appear, fare much better. The irony with us users of English as a second language (ESL) is that we are implicitly expected to have a first language competence in it, without having a first-language exposure to it.

We do not get the tolerance and indulgence granted to those who use English as a foreign language (EFL). That is just one of the myriad contradictions of our colonial legacy. But of the learning of competent language, there is no end.

Anyway, let us keep feeling, sharing and talking. Stay safe, habiib habiibi, beloved, my beloved.

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