One of the most intriguing things about President Uhuru Kenyatta is his ability to communicate fluently in English, Kiswahili as well as his native Kikuyu language. It is impressive how effortlessly he can deliver a speech in either of the languages.
Sadly, many youths find it embarrassing to communicate in their native languages. They have the misconception that a good command of a native language is indicative of lack of civilisation and that use of English implies one is more learned or from a higher social class.
As a communications trainer, I occasionally find myself having to ask for native language illustrations and/or equivalents from my students, but some of them claim to only speak Swahili or English. One of the key factors that influence language learning for a child is the availability of support at home.
Many youth have grown up in households where the communication language is either English or Kiswahili. Unlike children in rural areas, the only chance urban kids have of learning their indigenous languages is from their parents. Their peers in their cosmopolitan neighbourhoods equally communicate in either English, Kiswahili or the patois that is sheng.
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Although Kiswahili and English are Kenya's official languages, the constitution does not advocate for linguistic hegemony, but rather seeks to equally promote different forms of cultural expression through, among other ways, literature, communication as well as publications.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, a good command of a native language can be a valuable asset in today’s job environments. Digital migration, for example, saw many trained journalists take up jobs as news anchors and reporters in the many vernacular radio and TV stations. It is common to also find a good command of a native language as a requirement for some jobs in non-governmental organisations operating within local communities.
We should proudly teach our children their native languages for them to understand and uphold their cultural heritages. In a country that has experienced ethno-political tension every electioneering period, we should seek to learn not just our own, but also our neighbours’ and as many native languages as possible.
Besides being an instrument of communication, language is also a major element of culture and a way of asserting a people’s identity. When we learn the language of our fellow Kenyans, we express our interest in understanding, appreciating and embracing their cultural identity.
Similarly, a basic understanding of other methods of communication such as sign language and braille is a sure way to enhance disability-inclusion within our living, working and learning environments.
-Dr Kiambati is a Communication lecturer and trainer, Kenyatta University