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Learning their mother tongue will unlock your child's brain power


It was a triangle of happenstances that triggered the thought-line that is today's piece. It started with a mother who was pretty chuffed that her daughter is now able to have a conversation in English after just a month in kindergarten.

Then followed another mother who was looking for a house-manager, for it is no longer politically correct to call them house-helps, who is conversant with the English language; why? Because their home is an English-language only one, even though they are black and Kenyan; to each their own, I say.

A few days later, one of my daughters, a Kikuyu speaker herself, quite mortified, told me how one of her schoolmates was punished for speaking their mother tongue. The mother who was proud of her kindergarten daughter stole my heart, because she is my tribe by virtue of believing in the power of a child's mind, to learn nearly everything in record time. Right from the start, she was adamant on her daughter learning her mother tongue, and she spoke nothing else to her.

Baby girl stood out during family gatherings as the other kids listened to her in wonder. Because children don't need a common language to communicate with one another, she still played with others. A month into school, the mother was vindicated, when the daughter added Kiswahili and English to her language collection. Easy peasy. That is the genius of children. But like the mother in the second citation, adults curtail that genius by limiting children. These two mothers cancel each other perfectly.

When my daughter told me about her unfairly punished schoolmate, it took me back to my childhood. We were the Kikuyu-speaking children, like in the first scenario. We gawked at the cool city kids who visited over the holidays, as their tongues rolled in strange tongues. We envied them, they looked down on us, and we allowed them to - because we were conditioned to prefer anything foreign. They laughed at us because we could not speak the foreign language they spoke, in our own land - the irony! We felt shame, even though they were the ones who should really have been feeling the shame. We wanted to be them, tried to mimic them, and failed miserably - our words came out heavily accented. Oh, how we wanted to be them.

Post-colonial hangover

There were a few village kids who could speak English, and they were a tier on top of the rest of us. We let them play kati first, we let them lead us; they had privilege, because they spoke English. Then we joined school, and we were force-fed English, got punished for speaking our mother tongue. Decades later, I cannot believe that it is still acceptable to punish a child for knowing an extra language. Would that child have been punished if they had been caught speaking French? Or Italian? That we still have too many people who should know better, believing there are inferior languages, is an illustration of how bad post-colonial hangovers are. Generations after colonialism, we still have people thinking that anything African is inferior, especially with language and religion.

Did you know, that children, because they are natural geniuses and soak up information like sponges soak up water, can learn an unlimited number of languages, including gibberish? Experts' advice is however, three at a go, for purposes of fluency. The mistake that adults often make is measuring children with the same limiting yardstick they, the adults, use. You are not the same - they are way above you.

When children learn multiple languages, they maximise their brain power, they learn how to multi-task, how to solve problems better and faster; it's a doorway to a wider world, and you, as their caretaker, by enabling them to learn any languages, are making them special. You are making them custodians of that language's culture, because without language, a culture cannot be preserved. I am proof that knowing your mother tongue is a way to earn. I get hired to translate and transcribe to and from my language, and all these jobs happen to be international. We, those who can read, write and speak our mother tongue, are in high demand, because you, you who do not want your children to learn so-called native languages, are turning us into a rare sort.

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