Mother Language Day Fosters Linguistic Pluralism


By Dr Jairos Kangira FEBRUARY 21 is Mother Language Day, a day set aside by UNESCO each year to celebrate all the languages of the world. As the whole world celebrates UNESCO’s Mother Language Day next week, it is important to remember that no language is superior to another in the linguistic sense. Bearing this in mind, it is equally important to note that this commemoration fosters linguistic pluralism and cultural diversity in communities around the world as language and culture are inseparable. Since issues concerning language are sensitive, it is sometimes difficult for one to know exactly where to start when discussing these contentious issues. For the purpose of this article, I think it suffices to begin by reflecting briefly on the imbalances that existed between colonial languages and native or indigenous languages. One of the most challenging dilemmas post-colonial states in Africa and elsewhere in the world got into soon and well after the attainment of independence – political independence to be specific – was to do with changing the language policies to suit the new order. In most cases the new states found themselves, consciously or unconsciously, making cosmetic changes to old language policies, thereby directly or indirectly perpetuating the status quo of colonial languages. The new states did not need to completely discard colonial languages, but to remove those aspects of their usage that were not in tandem with the philosophies of the free nations, nations that had to be proud of their indigenous languages and cultures, a feat they had hitherto been denied in the colonial order when the languages of the masters mattered more than local languages. Some of the new states attempted to get out of the situation but it end just as a talk without action, while others silently acquiesced to the situation. Still others faced stiff resistance from both the private and public sectors in their communities when they wanted to implement drastic changes that would raise the status of local languages to that of the colonial language or languages in some cases. The intended changes were viewed not only retrogressive, but also as being out of step with the so-called new era dictated by the global-village rhetoric. The end result was that foreign languages such as English, French and Portuguese were made official languages in Africa, for instance. These languages dominated local languages and in some cases supplanted the local languages. This had ripple effects in the lives of the indigenous people who were made to believe that their languages, and implicitly cultures, were of no consequence. This diglossic situation that made the local languages play second fiddle to colonial languages denied communities the opportunity to celebrate linguistic diversity and multi-lingualism, the opportunity that the world is now accorded by UNESCO’s Mother Language Day since its inception in February 2000. In line with modern philosophy, UNESCO sends the message about the importance of mother languages loud and clear to the whole world by declaring that “Languages are the heart of humanity’s intangible heritage. They are born, they evolve, and, sometimes, they are doomed to die. Yet, it behoves us to do all in our power to safeguard them so as to preserve them so as to preserve the world’s invaluable cultural diversity. To this end and to rise to the challenge of multi-lingualism, UNESCO supports language policies that promote mother tongues (languages).” There is no better way to encapsulate the essence of the date February 21 of each year than to reflect on these wise words form UNESCO. The backdrop of UNESCO’s setting a special day to commemorate mother languages the world over should be viewed with the following facts in mind: the world has about 6ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 languages, half of which are endangered; 96 percent of the world’s 6ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 languages are spoken by a paltry four percent; 90 percent of these languages do not appear on the Internet; one language dies every two weeks and, only 20 percent of African languages have orthographies (writing systems). This is a gloomy picture by any standards. Imagine waking up one day without your mother language! This may sound awkward and exaggerated, but it is a fact that languages are disappearing or are being swallowed by other languages. In fact, in some cases, languages and cultures have virtually disappeared and more are in a precarious state. Instead of saving the situation, most middle class parents in former colonial states, in Africa, for instance, actually worsen it by creating environments that make their children despise their mother languages and cultures in favour of foreign languages and cultures. For instance, it is common for parents to scramble for places for their children at crÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¨ches and schools which use foreign languages. Urban parents shun institutions which tend to use local languages more often in their operations. They prefer crÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¨ches and play centres that use a foreign language such as English throughout the day. And this continues at home where domestic workers can be fired for speaking to the children in their mother tongue. For such children, their mother language becomes their second language. They speak their mother language with difficulty. They cannot construct complete sentences in their mother language without switching to the foreign language. The pronunciation of words in their mother language is horrible. Such children develop a negative attitude towards their mother language and culture. According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, when this happens, these children and their parents have succumbed to a cultural bomb. Ngugi, in his book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Theatre, aptly describes this situation as follows: “The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of the struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify themselves with that which is furthest from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages rather than their own.” This is food for thought as we celebrate Mother Language Day this year. It is important to take stock and find out whether you are doing justice to your mother language – whichever one it may be – that natural gift that initiated you into this world, the gift that you used in the first utterance you made when you were able to speak. Although it is a fact that both language and culture are dynamic, it is wrong to encourage values and norms of foreign languages that endanger your own culture and mother language. The invasion of foreign values and norms must be stopped by those who want to preserve the purity of their mother languages for generations to come. The starting point is taking pride in our own mother languages no matter how crude other people may say these languages are in comparison with other languages. The pride in one’s mother language manifests itself in a number of ways such as constant use of the language and giving one’s children names from the mother language. As we celebrate Mother Language Day, let us reflect on the names that we give our children. In most cases people give foreign names. Names like Nomatter, Godknows, Last, Hardlife, Norest, Trouble and many others, are common in societies whose mother language is not English. There is no intention whatsoever to attack people who have these and other English names but they are used here to advance the argument that people must be proud of their mother languages. Yours Truly also has an English name as the by-line shows, so you see, we are in the same boat. But what Yours Truly has done is to give all his three daughters names from his mother language Shona. They are called Rumbidzai (Praise), Kudzai (Respect) and Yeukai (Remember). As we commemorate Mother Language Day next week, let us conscientise our children and other members of society about the importance of mother languages as vehicles of promoting culture and traditions. Instead of buying your children chocolates or ice cream on February 21, buy them books written in your mother language. In addition to that special Valentine gift, buy your lover a book written in the lover’s mother language. Sing to your children and lovers those beautiful ditties in your language. And let us remember that people do not choose to be born speaking the languages they speak. Respecting other people’s languages and cultures shows great civilisation. – Dr Jairos Kangira is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Polytechnic of Namibia.