The Nation recently featured the story of a 16-year-old Kenyan girl who last year was the top student internationally in the English Language IGCSE ‘O’ Level examination, a feat that she attributed to her parents who encourage her to speak only English at home.
Unlike many Kenyans who tend to be proficient in at least one, if not more, Kenyan languages, this child has been denied the privilege of learning an African language. (In an interview, she referred to English as her “first language” followed by French.)
The girl loves to read, which is commendable, and highly unusual, especially among her age-group, which tends to read only textbooks.
And because I know that she is probably going to read this column, I am going to ask her to read (and digest) the book, Decolonising the Mind, by Kenya’s most famous author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who refers to this book as “my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings”.
In a lecture titled “Re-membering Africa” at the University of Nairobi in January 2007, Ngugi told his audience that by adopting foreign languages lock, stock and barrel, Africans are committing “linguicide”, which has killed their memories as a people, as a culture and as a society.
Ngugi derides Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking their mother tongues, a phenomenon that has led to “linguistic famine” in African households.
This would never happen in countries such as Germany or France, where German and French children learn their own language before they learn English.
Nor would it happen in China, India or Brazil. (I have yet to meet a Chinese person who feels ashamed about not knowing English.)
Even in neighbouring Tanzania and Somalia, people become fluent in Kiswahili and Somali respectively before they learn other languages.
(I recently attended a two-day meeting in Dar es Salaam, which was entirely conducted in just one language — Kiswahili. Like many Kenyans who visit Tanzania, I became painfully aware of the fact that my mastery of this beautiful language was woefully inadequate.)
Ngugi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memory.
And people without memory are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it.
Because erasure of memory is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their assimilation into colonial culture.
He calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss — like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.
Many people of my generation are multilingual because they were encouraged to speak their mother tongues at home.
While English was the primary medium of education, I learnt Hindi, Punjabi and Kiswahili at home. Later, I picked up a bit of French and Urdu.
All these languages have enriched my life in ways I cannot describe.
Without them, I would have never been able to understand the subtle meanings and nuances embedded in certain words.
I would not have communicated with my grandmother or watch and enjoy Bollywood films.
Nor would I have realised that former President Moi’s speeches in English were very different in meaning and tone from his speeches in Kiswahili.
I would not have developed an understanding of my own and other people’s cultures or developed empathy and tolerance of other races and ethnic groups if I was not multi-lingual.
Knowledge of many languages promotes inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and is essential in a globalising world.
If Kenyans are to be successful citizens of the world, professionals, and parents, they must learn their own and other people’s languages.
Prof Wangari Maathai, who died recently, once said “culture is coded wisdom”, and must be preserved.
Language is the vehicle through which that culture is transmitted. We must preserve it for the sake of present and future generations.