alexa There's great value in knowing our mother tongue - Daily Nation

There's great value in knowing our mother tongue

Tuesday February 12 2019

More by this Author

A competency-based curriculum discussion has reminded Kenyans of the value of the use of local languages.

Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of the strongest advocates for use of African languages in literature, has once again emphasised the Swahili saying ''mwacha mila ni mtumwa'', which loosely translates to ''one who abandons their traditions is a slave.''

In one of the events organised to promote his new book Kenda Muiyuru, he pointed out that colonisers, slave masters and conquerors systematically annihilated a people’s way of life and thought systems by attacking their language and naming systems.


It turns out that English is Kenya’s official language alongside Kiswahili, the national language, and in the new curriculum Mandarin, the Chinese national dialect, Arabic, German and French will now be taught to Standard Four pupils.

Teaching staff and learning materials will naturally create commerce for the countries in which these languages are spoken. I doubt that there are enough, if any, trained teachers in any of these languages, especially at primary level. But most importantly, Kenyan children will be exposed to weightless cultural ideas and philosophies.

This would present little challenge for children who have a strong foundation of their own languages as happens in the countries in which all the above languages are spoken. The primary mode of learning for children in Germany, France etc. is these languages. Children can and do learn other languages, later in life.

The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has emphasised time and again that the mother tongue is key to effective learning, peace building and sustainable development. Every year on the February 21, the world celebrates the International Mother Language Day to reiterate the commitment to linguistic diversity and multilingualism. Why would the curriculum developers then think that this diversity does not include, Rendille, Kamba, Maasai or any other Kenyan language?


Liberty in the use of one’s mother tongue is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of language. It is also supported in the Convention against Discrimination in Education. The logic here is that a child must be instructed in their mother tongue to enable learning until such a time that they are conversant in the national or official languages of their territorial jurisdiction, which are often the languages of instruction in schools.

According to Unesco, forty percent of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language that they speak or understand. In essence this means that no learning takes place even if such a person is in school. Sad!

Yet there are Kenyans who continue to lack understanding on the value of the mother tongue. They have criticised Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s stand and have argued that he, with millions of copies of his books in different titles in circulation international, has primarily used English as the language of communication.

But killing the messenger does not change the message. Language is the most heavily-laden channel of transmission for cultural content. In these cultures lie wisdom, tradition, lessons learned from past mistakes, warnings of things foretold and records of historical achievements, victories and failures.


As is always the case when a raw cord is struck, some people have turned personal and asked if the professor earns his living from his Kikuyu literature. And this bespeaks of the great devaluing of life in itself through the commercialisation of everything, including one’s heritage.

It is soulless to account for everything in monetary terms and the cash that can be derived from it. To paraphrase an Australian Aborigine saying, ''We are visitors in this place. Our purpose is to learn, to grow, to love and then to return home''.

Language then is the mode of learning, growing and loving. If it is inherited, then it will, so to speak, ''speak from the heart''. It is therefore in a group of items that are referred to as priceless cultural and intellectual heritage. This makes mother tongue superior to other languages as a mode of communication.

Language is also an asset whose value is little-understood until it is lost. African literature is part of our priceless heritage, especially that which is in the mother tongue or translated from it. Mother tongue is therefore superior to other languages and its use in writing is an art that few artists are able to navigate. It is not for sale, even when it is sold.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa