Heed Ngugi’s counsel and help save disappearing languages

Renowned author Ngugi wa Thiong’o (pictured) is despairing at the rapid disappearance of Kenya’s indigenous languages.

His pain is that a lot of those in their mid-20s and below can’t speak or write in their mother tongue. In fact, a lot of the Generation Ys and Zs, and particularly the millennials, can hardly comprehend their parent’s first language. His concerns are valid

Actually, a lot of those growing up in the countryside speak either of the two lingua franca- Kiswahili and English. English and Swahili are no longer exclusively spoken in towns. Education and rapid urbanization are the cause of the language conundrum. Most of the subjects in schools besides Swahili and Mother Tongue are taught in English.

The urban centres are a melting pot of cultures. For ease of communication, most town dwellers will adopt a lingua franca. Most children growing up in towns therefore speak less and less of their mother tongue.

But Thiong’o, a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Language is sure that it has to do with our colonial heritage. His biggest grouse is that British colonists socialized the natives to accept that their culture was inferior and backward, hence the obsession with the Received Pronunciation (RP) English and other exotic languages and culture.

And he has a point. To reinforce the concept that English is superior, students who speak their mother tongue during school time- even in Swahili- bear the ignominy of carrying around a huge disk as if to declare they are inferior. Hence his decolonization crusade. In his 1981 book Decolonising the Mind, the US-based scholar moans that very little was being done in schools to expose children to their cultural and physical environment. Regrettably, that still happens to date.

Language is central to any culture. After all, culture was orally passed on from one generation to the next. The written word is a new invention. There are genuine fears that introducing Mother Tongue will entrench tribalism. Those fears are misplaced. Tribe only exists in mind.

Sadly, Kenya faces the prospect of future generations lacking in culture not out of choice but because of the dead languages. That should not be the case.We have a duty to rescue the disappearing languages of our ancestors. Any efforts to regenerate these languages must start with the acceptance that our language – and thus our culture- is just as good as all those others.

That should be followed with deliberate government policy that ensures the preservation of all traditional languages and culture. One way of doing that is by ensuring that traditional languages and culture are taught in schools. It is comforting that the new curriculum has a provision for mother tongue in pre-school up to Grade 3, thereafter it becomes optional. The government can also help establish language centres across the country from where the younger generation can imbibe the elements of their language and culture.

For good measure, anthropologists recognise language as a living thing in need of care and nurturing.

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Ngugi wa Thiong’oKenya’s indigenous languages