In the grips of English: The language conundrum

I used to laugh at how people speak English. I laughed because they could not pronounce English words according to how I thought they should be pronounced. Now, for me, it no longer matters how people pronounce words (even though I still occasionally laugh at people for it!). It no longer matters to me because it is now superficial; I have come to appreciate that it doesn’t have any basis on the core message that one seeks to communicate. Admittedly and personally I still try to pronounce words in the manner intended in their native languages, this though should be at the flexibility of my own tongue. I will not, nor should anyone else labour to sound French or Italian or Xhosa or English. The French for example have a problem sounding ‘English’, so do I!

When I was in school I was often chosen to read for the class, be it Shona or English. So I actually grew up thinking I had a good grasp of languages and to some point I was right, I do have a decent grasp of these two languages. The problem was in the way I would react to my fellow classmates when they were reading and stumble on a word or outright fail to pronounce the word (e.g. reiterate). Back then that was hilarious, but I have come to realise that fluency in English does not equate to intelligence. School - Zimbabwe

Even in romance, language rears its ugly head! Why can’t we romanticise our local languages in Zimbabwe? How many of you try to initiate a relationship using your native tongue? There will be a number of you, who will say they indeed use Shona/Ndebele/Kalanga etc. However, quite a number will think it is uncool, especially those who regard themselves as educated. Similarly, when approached, what is the first impression when the person approaches in vernacular and where they do so in fluent English? What is the difference really, the message is the same.

As someone who went to a mission school, I learnt flexibility in language use by being able to quickly and easily switch between Shona and English. Incidentally, like myself, most students found the written language easier to deal with than the spoken. This is quite normal, English was and still is a secondary language for most Zimbabweans. Thus, to many, English was just an academic requirement. At home it was infrequently spoken. Those who occasionally threw in English words and sentences did so to show intelligence. Interestingly, our class was always well behaved during our English lesson because we didn’t have the guts to make fun, be rude and have to explain ourselves in English, especially when our English teacher was white! Such was the hold that English had on us.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery

After completing high school, subconsciously my mindset remained the same towards language and how I thought fluency in English was a skill that one would use to get them far in life. In some settings it actually is and in some not so much. However, while at university I realised how English is just a means to communicate that has become sort of a standard worldwide. Importantly, I realised that not being fluent in English was not a handicap. Articles by great writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on the importance of languages, specifically our native languages have also helped me in formulating and reinforcing my own opinion. For him language is more than just a means to communicate but also has our identity attached to it.  :

“The African middle class is running away from their languages. In the process they perpetuate child abuse on a national scale. For to deny a child, any child, their right to mother tongue, to bring up such a child as a monolingual English speaker in a society where the majority speak African languages, to alienate that child from a public they may be called to serve, is nothing short of child abuse. To have mother tongue, whatever it is, and add other languages to it is empowerment. But to know all the other languages and not one’s own is enslavement.”

HIs last statement is especially poignant. It is especially important for a continent that is seeking to find its own identity, that is seeking to own its philosophy, a continent which seeks to have a proud people that will resolve our own problems, even should they not be of our own making, in our own original way. A continent seeking to unshackle itself from mental slavery and to free itself from (cultural) colonialism/imperialism. How better to do it than to exalt and be proud of our local languages.

wa Thiong’o) goes on to say:

“The struggle to right the imbalance of power between languages should be national, with belief and passion behind it. The education system should reflect that commitment and I don’t see why a knowledge of one or more African languages should not be a requirement at all levels of graduation from primary to colleges.”

This is not to say without a good grasp of our mother tongues we are lost, but knowledge of them strengthens our identity. There is nothing wrong with speaking as many languages as you can, it does not take away your identity, rather it adds to your diversity. To me though, there is a problem in being fluent in all those languages and yet struggle with your mother tongue.

helloYet we now have African children born and raised in the diaspora. Whether the identity of this particular constituent is African or is of the particular area they are born and raised in is a discussion for another day. Theirs is a difficult situation because while it remains ideal for them to remain truly African (language and all!), it also remains difficult in an environment where possibly the immediate family are the only ones fluent in the native language and at school they are taught in the language indigenous to the area but “foreign” to the children.

In South Africa, the move made by the University of KwaZulu-Natal to introduce Zulu as a required course for every undergraduate degree programme has stirred controversy. To me, this is a good start in promoting local languages and more universities should follow this bold move. This could open up another perspective on the language issue.

Meanwhile, a lot of primary and high schools still insist that pupils communicate in English at all times while on school premises. This is where the subjugation of our languages starts. It is as if the use of English is a prerequisite for class and quality. As if we cannot maintain the heritage of our language and our culture in pursuit of high quality education.

An aside: Language and economic development

I think it is easier to be more innovative if you are not burdened with trying to convert your thought process and express it in a different language. Indeed, there seems to be a relationship between countries that predominantly use their local languages and the strength of their local economies. Local languages seem to have a strong presence in economies that are considered developed or that are developing at a very fast rate. For example, the Japanese have built an economic giant, manufacturing and supplying capital goods the world over, conducting their local commerce. Similarly, China and Russia have made great strides in economic development and now exert tremendous influence globally.

Interestingly, China has established a department at the University of Zimbabwe to teach Mandarin. Similar centres are being established worldwide. China, like imperialists before it, is on a drive to export and expand its language and use it as a tool of domination. This is not new. Historically, the Roman Empire’s success lay in the use of its language of commerce. Likewise, the British Empire was built in part by establishing English as the language of commerce. The Portuguese did the same, as did the French.SpeechBubbles

Ironically, today, some argue that the use of local languages is not good in the corporate world when using them should not be a hassle. They argue that local languages don’t play a significant role in the corporate environment. My view is that two people who can better communicate in Shona, for example, should be free to do so, not be yoked by the demands of speaking English because they are at work. To me, language does not drive commerce it merely facilitates. Ideas, products and services drive commerce.

What then?

Shimmer Chinodya, when asked why African writers continue to use Europhone languages to write, argued that,

“[w]riting in any place or any language, or foreign language, is an act of repossession and reclamation. It’s a declaration of intent…I read in the Queen’s language. I [am] a traitor…a sell-out, but it’s not that simple. I think that this language was imposed upon us but for me it’s too late to apologise and I’m not apologetic anymore. I think I’ve lost my apology. For me the English language imposed itself upon me, and it’s now for me to impose upon the English language my thought process, my vision of existence, my values, my beliefs when using this language…I grow from [multiple] linguistic cultures… for me the language problem is not a problem.

Indeed, English was imposed upon us and it is too late to be apologetic about using the language. I particularly enjoyed that although, as he put it, English language was imposed upon us and he uses it as the medium of his writing, Chinodya still remains very good in his local languages. That’s something to be proud of.

I hope that the generations that follow are not further alienated from their mother tongues or grow up ashamed of using their mother tongue at the risk of being seen as backward or unintelligent.

Solomon Chabveyi

[Guest contributor]

Solomon C

One thought on “In the grips of English: The language conundrum

  1. Language is simply a means of transmitting one’s feelings; making sense of newly acquired information and (meaning making) inter alia.

    As such; I am bilingual, speaking both Shona and English. As Shimmer Chinodya rightly pointed out; English was imposed on me, to the point where even at school, it was the medium through which I conceptualized; made sense of abstractions and formulated answers to the most vexatious of inquiries.

    Unfortunately, whilst embarking on my path to worldly understanding, I realized that myriad of the subjects of which I was learning, encapsulated terms and concepts which had no commensurate terms in my vernacular language.

    The Russians, British, Chinese, Japanese, French and various developed nations languages, have formulated or have inherent in them, nomenclature which can be applied in the tutoring of let’s say astro physics; robotics; philosophy; engineering; political science et al – I hope you see the point I’m driving at.

    It’s all good and dandy positing that as Africans and Zimbabweans we must embrace our languages to further pinion and perpetuate our sense of identity – but should our languages not also be propagating an intellectualism that is idiosyncratic to us as Africans and Zimbabweans?

    I can communicate in Shona fluently, but unfortunately cannot communicate complex abstract concepts due to a dearth of terms and nomenclature I can employ to enunciate my thoughts and ideas in a manner that will be fully appreciated and understood; as is the case when I deploy English.

    For there to be a true awakening or rather renaissance of African languages beyond their usages in everyday interactions, our linguists will need to formulate neologisms that appertain to the relevant fields of study, that have hitherto been reliant on imposed languages such as English and French, for indigenes of Africa, as a means of imparting knowledge in disciplines that will not only aid in uplifting Africa socio-economically, but also restore a sense of pride that has been lost due to Africa and Zimbabwe’s over reliance on foreign languages as a means of mastering academic pursuits.

    How can we truly be emancipated – when most of our tertiary education cannot be instructed in our own languages – and further yet – when our languages are bereft of terms that proffer greater elucidation to noetic concepts?

    Liked by 1 person

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