“How many languages do you speak?” a friend asked me during a coffee date recently. “Four”, I responded. She is British.
“I marvel at the way you people [Kenyans] speak many languages unlike some of us who are monolingual,” she quipped.
For her, to speak such a number of languages is wonderful; something I had taken as normal till then. The interlocution was an eye opener for me. It left me with a number of questions lingering on my mind.
How many of us appreciate multilingualism? How many of us appreciate our first languages (popularly known as mother tongues)? How many of us view linguistic diversity as a positive phenomenon?
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As the world marks International Mother Language Day (IMLD), I can’t help recounting this encounter. For the last 10 years since 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has led the world in celebrating languages with a view to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. This follows from the fact that the significance of language in society cannot be gainsaid. At the outset, it should be noted that, in the world, there are about 7,000 languages of varying speech communities in terms of demographics, some minority some majority, most of them intra-national and some international. Sadly, 43 per cent of these languages are endangered while a number are getting extinct according to UNESCO. Of the 7,000, a couple of them have, for one reason or another, been assigned a place in education systems as media of instruction and less than a hundred are utilised in the digital sector. This clearly indicates that majority of them are rather ostracised in terms of utility.
It is widely agreed that languages are the most powerful tools of preserving and developing both our tangible and intangible heritage. And that there is a correlation between language and development, not to mention language and culture. This follows from the fact that language is central to communication of all kinds. Positive change and developmental progress in society are facilitated largely via linguistic communication.
The truth of the matter is that, more often than not, many Africans among other communities, especially in the third world, view our mother tongues as ‘primitive’ languages and view the use of second and foreign languages as progress.
In the Kenyan context, there are about 42 languages: a diverse linguistic situation. The majority is multilingual where English and Kiswahili are constitutionally official. Both languages are languages of wider communication so to speak. English, for instance, enjoys a prestigious status as a medium of instruction in schools (upper primary) through college level and has cut itself a niche in the mainstream media as well. The two languages, to a certain degree, seem to be ‘suffocating’ local languages more so in the urban settings. In Kenya today, we find persons whose first language is English or Kiswahili, or the rapidly surging Sheng.
Even in rural areas people are increasingly abandoning their mother languages in favour of Kiswahili and, to some extent, English. This is replicated across Africa and other parts of the world where local languages tend to lose their vitality against languages of wider communication. Kenya has its fair share of endangered languages including extinct languages. It is estimated that about ten Kenyan languages are either endangered or extinct, among them: Ogiek, El Molo, Suba, Omootik, Kinare, Pong’omek, and Yaaku.
Mother languages in multilingual settings are critical components of communication and of facilitating education. During this awful time of Covid-19, for instance, local languages just like international ones play a key role in communicating relevant information.
On a day like this we need to rethink the importance of our languages; and to rethink our policy regarding our languages and their use. Perhaps we also need to look around and reflect on the relationship between the use of mother tongue and development. Why is it, for instance, that countries which use their mother tongue as a medium of instruction in school seem to prosper considering cases like Germany and China? How can we tap our linguistic diversity to unite the people rather than divide them? These are issues we need to refocus, as we celebrate mother language (or is father language?) today.
-The writer is a PhD candidate in Linguistics, Moi University.