In Celebration of Mother Tongue

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK A home language is what a young child learns from his or her mother right from birth. Not only does it serve as the key foundation of understanding and identity, but it is also a channel of interactive communication in the culture and society that one is born into. In the past, elders used to promote the use of the mother language, viewing it as a source of cultural pride and dignity and especially identity. Yet, with English being the country’s national language, the trend has been that more and more young people fail to speak the local dialects. It is against this background that experts in the mother tongue language development sector believe that it is crucial for all Namibians to promote their home language at all times. Just after independence in 1990, English was introduced as a neutral unifying language through which all Namibians can interact on an equal playing field. So as the years progressed, the local indigenous languages took a back seat as more people moved to English. Yet, in an effort to inculcate the bilingual trend of English and a home language at schools, the Ministry of Education is looking into introducing local languages into the curriculum. On Tuesday this week, Namibia together with the rest of the world commemorated International Mother Language Day. In a bid to celebrate mother tongues, February 21 was proclaimed by UNESCO’s General Conference in November 1999. A recent television panel discussion on the national broadcaster also emphasised the fundamental importance of this day, especially in promoting mother languages in education. “A mother tongue gives the child the foundation for concept formation, culture and how you should live in your community … it also gives the child the capacity to think innovatively and to conceptualise deeply,” said Professor Wilfrid Haacke of the Department of African Languages at the University of Namibia. He strongly urged that local languages be introduced at schools in a bid to promote Namibian indigenous languages. Currently, there are 11 ethnic groupings in Namibia, with seven indigenous languages in total. According to the Ministry of Education, while 98 percent of Namibia’s population speaks Oshiwambo, only 0.8 percent speaks English. In an interview with New Era, Country Representative of UNESCO Dr Claudia Harvey said that close to 6 000 languages spoken around the world are dying because of the worldwide use of English. “English is so much of social value, like they say you get money when you know English,” said Dr Harvey, noting that this leads to local languages being suppressed around the world. In light of this, Dr Harvey encourages the use of local languages, as they are more than just instruments of communication. Quoting UNESCO’s Director General on the commemoration day, Harvey said that a local language is important for “structuring our thoughts, in coordinating our social relations, building our relationship and constitutes a fundamental dimension of the human being. It is in and through language that we live.” In Africa, there are between 1 200 and 2 000 indigenous languages, but it turns out that European languages from the colonial era are still predominant on the continent today. Speaking at the same panel discussion this week, Deputy Minister of Education Dr Becky Ndjoze-Ojo said that a language policy is a political decision and schools must have this support in introducing other languages. “In my opinion, language is the key to education and it must therefore start from the inside,” added Ndjoze-Ojo, noting that the Ministry of Education is currently looking at the idea of promoting local languages at schools in the country in addition to English already being the medium of instruction. As discussions go on, comments from the street have been that while the majority of Namibians favour the introduction of a local language in education, some feel this might lead to confusion for learners. “My mother tongue is Tswana which is my foundation, but I grew up with Afrikaans at school and now the roof is English. What this means is that I first have to think in Tswana, before I can translate that thought into Afrikaans and speak it out in English!” said one man, underlining the confusion. Yet others felt that it was vital for young people to know how to read and write their mother tongue in a modern society. “Nowadays, young people are so shy to even speak their mother tongue and rather interact in English. That is not good at all as it suppresses their identity and culture as Namibians,” said a concerned parent. While it would seem that it might take some time to change the mindset of Namibians to nurture their own languages, it is also evident that in preserving the country’s diverse language and heritage, such a move would be a step in the right direction.