It’s that time again for Kenyans. That time when the spotlight is trained on the men and women who are seeking elective positions come August. We have millions watching television interviews keenly seeking to know not just the issues being discussed but also, just how are they being articulated
The men and women with a good command of English are quickly branded the better leaders. Woe unto you if you speak with an accent or if your English is not fast and flawless. Social media will be on your case for days.
“How can she lead us when she can’t even make a complete English sentence?” we wonder out aloud.
I have a friend who will not hire a househelp with a heavy accent from her local dialect. “It will affect my kids’ English,” she says.
Now, the Queen’s language is a beautiful one. It is also true that you may have an easier time around the world if you can speak it. However, I think that by continually associating ‘good English’ with intelligence, supremacy and civilisation, and by using English as a benchmark to limit opportunities for other people, we are barking up the wrong tree. The truth is that English is a language, a means of communication. It is not a measure of intelligence or character. It shouldn’t be used as a measure of our identities.
I always get irritated when I see some of our athletes on international television struggling to speak English and failing spectacularly at it. If I was asked, they should express themselves in the language they are most comfortable in. It is up to the interviewer to look for translation. I believe that Swahili and Kalenjin are just as powerful languages as English.
When we start believing that English is more than just a language, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Some of the most educated people I know speak with heavy accents. But if we are so obsessed with accents and the need to speak a certain way and with a certain speed, then we might never get to pick some of these brains.
Let’s not buy into the lie that some languages and cultures are superior to others, or that if you display your roots and your culture, then you are not civilised. Instead of wasting time banning particular languages from our homes and worrying that your children will pick up accents from their minders, worry instead that they are able to interpret the world around them and to adjust to the constant changes around them.
So what if that woman speaks English slowly? So what if she prefers to express herself in Swahili? Who are you to say that she is unintelligent?
Let your children learn their mother tongue. Let them explore the different cultures around them, not just the Western culture. Learning these things will not get in the way of civilisation. If anything, it is by understanding the different cultures and why different people do the things they do that we are better able to relate with them.
Opening yourself up to the different cultures and languages makes you a better person, a more tolerant person. Let’s tune people out less and listen more.