Stop this obsession with English language

Monday September 11 2017

Lawyers Ahmednasir Abdullah (left) and Paul Muite at the Supreme Court Nairobi on September 1, 2017. The court nullified President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in a majority decision. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Lawyers Ahmednasir Abdullah (left) and Paul Muite at the Supreme Court Nairobi on September 1, 2017. The court nullified President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in a majority decision. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

By MARGARET NJERU

Let ‘too much English’ not blind us. Antony Mwenda Kinoti (Daily Nation Friday, September 1, 2017) got it spot-on when he questioned the obsession that many Kenyans seem to have with those who speak impeccable English, often misconstruing it to mean high levels of intelligence.

There is an equal disdain for those that do not display such high levels of the Queen’s ‘tweng’.

This indeed was the case during the post 2017 presidential election case by the Supreme Court.

Many were mesmerized by the language used by many of  the learned friends.

On the other hand, fun was poked at others. Lawyer Ahmednassir Abdullahi aka grand mullah, for instance, was ridiculed that rather than talk of  ‘court’, he referred to the same as ‘goat’. 

RIDICULE

Many others in respectable positions in our society have been recipient of similar ridicule. Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi has for long been on the receiving end with his ‘mbas’ version of ‘bus’.

From a Linguistic point of view, all these ‘mispronunciations’ are aspects of Phonological misappropriation — a result of the replacement of English sounds with those from our mother tongues.

English is a second language to most Kenyans, and therefore mispronouncing some words is expected due to first language interference.

Coupled with the quality of language education received, especially in the early years of learning, some of these effects remain life-long.

A big part of the KoT (Kenyans on Twitter) generation that is vibrant on twitter, and that is quick to nit-pick about these errors, likely went to expensive private schools where they were drilled into pronouncing the English words ‘properly’.

PRONUNCIATION ERRORS

They therefore often find it ridiculous that many Kenyans do not speak English ‘correctly’.

What Kenyans should be more concerned about, however, is whether these pronunciation errors interfere with the speaker’s intended meanings.

By pronouncing ‘court’ as ‘goat’ in the vicinity of the court buildings, was the said lawyer likely to mislead the court into thinking about some goat grazing in the field? Absolutely not. But that became a focal point for many.

Unfortunately, in focusing on the quality of language used, many end up losing the gist of the discussion.

I have been in audiences where a mzungu uttered a few words or sentences in Kiswahili-  ‘jambo’, ‘habari gani’, ‘asante sana’ with a strong foreign accent, and the audience thunderously cheered and clapped for them.

COLONIAL MINDS

Nobody commented that the Kiswahili sounded funny or even wrong.

Rather, there is often an admiration for those from the West when they speak one of our languages, no matter how broken it might be. What irony! What colonial minds we still carry with us!

That when our own communicate effectively, intelligently, even at the very high levels of discourse as indeed in the judicial space, we make fun of their English. True, language is important, and we must use it in ways that we are understood.

However, we should not lose ourselves in the process and judge the users simply on their pronunciation.

Let us pay more attention to the content. Let us mature and ‘decolonize’ our minds linguistically  as Ngugi-wa-Thiong’o, the internationally renowned author would say.

Dr Njeru is a senior lecturer, Riara School of Education, Riara University, Nairobi. mwnjeru[email protected]