Opinion: We Treat Our Languages As Inferior

I remember writing ‘I am stupid’ when caught by the ‘language’ police conversing in our mother tongue.

In recent times The Journalist has focused on a myriad issues related to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Raising the profile of African languages is one of the keys to transforming our society. This piece written by a young Ethiopian woman working with the African Union in Mali, reminds us that we are grappling with a pan African challenge.

The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture

Ngugiwa Thiong'o

I remember how we were not allowed to speak in our mother tongue during break time back in school. We had to do away with our Mother Tongue and forced to master the American English, as opposed to encouraging us to be bilingual. I also remember writing ‘I am stupid’ (I think it was a hundred times) when we were caught by the school ‘language police’, conversing in our mother tongue.

During my years at university, working in an international organisation and in the social activism spaces in which I was involved, I have witnessed that people are favoured for accents resembling the colonial master. I suspect I may have been one of those favoured because I had been taught to stop being ‘stupid’.

As Fanon says; ‘Colonialism violently disrupted African cultural traditions and imposed, with varying degrees of success, European forms of thought and social organization upon the colonized.’ One of the consequences of colonialism is the replacement of African Languages by imposed alien languages. The artificial boundaries created in the aftermath of colonialism have created divisions among people speaking the same language. It is not uncommon to see African languages relegated to an inferior status.

Foreign Tongues the Sound of Success

It is as if the ‘knowledge’ and ‘success’ of a person is determined and measured by their mastery of colonial tongues. This is witnessed in all areas of life, but particularly in the education and workspaces. It is problematic to see ones Mother Tongue used in a condescending manner or to see it substituted it with an imposed lingua franca. It seems as though to speak a foreign language and disown ones own African language has been a synonym for joining the ‘educated’ camp.

African Language Families

At the risk of both minimising the ideals of good education and at the same time marginalising African languages…. It is evident that to join a certain group of African elites one must speak preferably English or French, and with an accent. As subtle as it may seem this is the anomaly that is embedded at the core of our society. The more American or European one sounds the more that shows privilege, class and the position obtained in the formation of societal strata.

The ‘cool’ kid in our schools is the one that oozes Europeanness. Assassination of ones culture dismisses and subsequently silences the usage of ones language and vocabulary. This is taken for granted within a broader notion of accepting Eurocentricity as universal. This framework calls for the formation of society based on Eurocentric standards.

It becomes imperative that Africa debunks the view that calls for respectability based on the denial and erasure of ones roots, particularly ones language.

African languages – despite brutal campaigns and the coercion of Western civilization, white supremacist ideologies or the divisions caused by pseudo boundaries – have survived and remain widely spoken by the people of Africa.

Among the many layers of oppression, the real ‘white man’s burden’, the notion of silencing the African mother tongue seems to be prioritised.

Kiswahili In Nine Countries

But, most African languages have broken the artificial bounders imposed on them. For example Kiswahili is spoken in nine different African countries. Our languages continue to be spoken in communal gatherings, in the markets, in our songs and it thrives in all areas of life.

This is why our languages must be used in various literacy campaigns, in the mass media and in government as well as in private institutions. Education is one of the ways forward for Africa and this can only be achieved by using the language with which Africans are most familiar.

In addition, using African languages is a pragmatic way of securing Africa’s development in all spheres. Progress that neglects the use of African languages also neglects quite a good number of Africans that speak only these languages. That simply does not make economic sense.

It is worth mentioning that employees conversing in non African languages abound in NGOs or CSOs. Various advocacy groups also engage people specifically because they come with the privilege of speaking a foreign language. Social activism that amplifies the British or American accents seems rampant.

Any social work that abandons the people it should serve, by not allowing the representation of those groups, is not inclusive and serves the needs of the privileged class.

And so, unleashing the potential of African languages and capitalising on its usage has to be a priority in the African integration narrative. We must ensure an end to the subordinate role given to African languages. The liberation of our languages from the yoke of colonialism. And, an African linguistic equity must ensue.

Pursuit of Dignity

Pan Africanism is the pursuit of dignity by African people and it can only be realised by the revival of African Languages as an integral component of continental mechanisms aimed at making Africa a self-determining prosperous family of nations. Using African languages in various spaces, specifically in the pedagogy, would help awaken the African consciousness and revitalise literacy campaigns, among many other gains.

Marginalized groups at the risk of being misrepresented and silenced as a result of language barriers would be able to unlock their potential and be granted the right to participate in deliberations affecting their lives.

While focussing on the Re-Africanization process we must also emphasise formation of a linguistic unity of African peoples at the grassroots level. Language is one of the most important defining pillars of a society and as such must be given a pivotal role in the African renaissance post colonial agenda.

The politics of language as an anti-colonialist vehicle should be given paramount importance in our striving for true emancipation. We are fighting against cultural imperialism and this means revalorising our African languages. An Africa that aims to dismantle systems of oppression should start doing so by respecting its own voice and defeating the claws of colonialism.

The fact that I write this in English speaks for itself. I will leave you with another quote from Fanon and አመሰግናለሁ (‘Thank you’ in Amharic one of Africa’s oldest langauges)

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture

Frantz Fanon

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