Local languages are Greek to the youth

Grace Masha Reads a Pokot book during the celebration of Mother tongue day that is celebrated every year on 18/2/15-BEVERLYNE MUSILI

Most children in my neighbourhood do not know their mother tongues.

Many speak Kiswahili and sheng fluently and only a handful speaks English quite well, and very few can comfortably hold conversations in their native languages.

This has led me to believe that in the not-so-distant future, our native tongues will become extinct.

My children, for instance, have no working knowledge of their mother tongue. They claim to understand one or two words, but they hardly succeed in holding coherent conversations in the language.

They do not even know any proverbs or songs from the language of their parents. This makes it easy for Mama Jimmy and I to backbite them. It also makes it extremely easy for me to hold top secret conversations with their mother while they are in the same room.

Their ignorance also puts them in awkward situations whenever they interact with some of our kin. To their rural cousins, my children are a special breed whose sophistication and style is to be emulated. You can imagine, however, the challenges that their eighty-year old grandmother faces while trying to converse with them, especially when they switch to sheng.

“I have really missed you, my child. When will you visit me?” Jimmy’s granny asked him on phone a while back.

“Wah, aki shosho manze sioni nikitoboa. Niliskia buda akidai ati hana mkwanja.”

After spending several years trying to hold conversations with my city-born children, granny has been left with no choice but to start learning sheng — with the children providing most of the lessons.

While children in some households are encouraged to learn their native tongues and take pride in mastering them, some parents actively distance their children from this important aspect of culture.

I have seen households where parents openly discourage their children from speaking mother tongue, as if it is some backward language.

In fact, I know of some homes where parents even discourage their children from using Kiswahili, thus limiting them strictly to English.

“My children must speak English well,” says Mama Hutchinson, my neighbour. “That will give them a competitive advantage in the job market. They should not waste time with Kiswahili or vernacular.”

So here is a deluded citizen who thinks her children are “competitive” because they speak a foreign tongue, yet they cannot name a single bird in their native tongue. Oh, please.

Matters are made worse by schools that prohibit the use of local vernacular, insisting that pupils must converse in either Kiswahili or English.

This rule has been there for ages, going as far back as the years I was in primary school, when we would be made to carry some contraption called a “montow” for merely speaking in mother tongue.

This montow would be handed to whoever spoke in mother tongue and the culprit would then be on the lookout for the next person who would utter the slightest sound in a forbidden language and pass it on.

You had to be careful because a holder would be so desperate to pass the montow that he or she would even accuse you of coughing in your mother tongue! At the end of the day, the last pupil to hold the montow would be caned — often in front of the entire class.

Thanks to such acts, local languages attained the low rating they hold to this day. Despite the negative press, I want my children to learn and appreciate their mother tongue.