Language colonialism, and our part in it

By Thandekile Moyo

MY MOTHER was strict and tolerated no nonsense from us. I grew up knowing that I always had to do right or face the consequences. The house had to be clean at all times, and everyone, from a certain age, had to do their own laundry.

We had to dress decently and nobody was allowed to go out at night. We were taught to respect our elders and she always reminded us to respect the community we lived in. Her word was law and no matter how ridiculous you thought her instructions were, you were not allowed to talk back or even question her decisions.

I, on the other hand, was a rebel, a subtle, underhand one for I was too much of a coward to dare contradict her in her face, but a rebel all the same. I learnt to make sure my laundry was done, even if I had to secretly pay someone to do it. I found ways to dress decently without being too old fashioned. I learnt to be responsible and to always deliver what was required of me, but with maturity, my rebellion died down.

As I grow older, I find myself trying to emulate her in many aspects of my life. I always laugh at myself whenever I tell my kids not to dare talk back at me or when I tell my young sisters I am not going anywhere with them dressed like that! Looking back, I regret how we treated my mother as a monster for trying to entrench in us true African values and principles.

My mother was an excellent English teacher and she helped many people to pass the subject at O’ Level. She would buy us novels as presents and we all were members of the local library. I remember going through the entire ‘Nancy Drew’ series and I am sure I read all of Enid Blyton’s novels. In retrospect though, I do not remember her ever speaking to us in English at home. The only time she addressed us in English was when she was teaching us the subject for school. We were therefore, a purely Ndebele-speaking family.

My father, on the other hand, was a Ndebele teacher and at some point the national chief examiner for the subject. He bombarded us with Ndebele novels and folktales so there was no escaping the language, and by default, the Ndebele culture. The English language for me, has, therefore, always been strictly for academic purposes and for entertainment or leisure through novels and television. Ndebele, however, has always been my medium of self-expression and the Ndebele culture, my way of life.

As a child, I remember how I used to envy my peers who could speak English “through the nose” and could get away with many things, for their parents were not as strict. I envied their “freedom” and longed for the day when I would be free to choose how I wanted to dress, what I wanted to eat and which language to speak at home. That day has come, and I find myself feeling sorry for my friends, as I watch them still choose the English language and consequently the English way of life over our own.

I have learnt to love my culture and be proud of my language and now realise how languages emphasize the differences in cultures. I feel responsible for the retention of our culture and I fear the loss of African cultures in favour of Western ways.

As I watch foreign languages being promoted at the expense of our mother tongues, I ask myself why we are not proud of our roots. I imagine a generation of Africans, 20 years from now, who speak only French, Portuguese and English.

It is difficult to separate language from culture, so as we adopt foreign languages we embrace their cultures and denounce our own. By sending our children to English medium schools and speaking to them only in English at home, we are paying through the nose, for our own estrangement from our children. We will reach a point where there is a total disconnect between our cultures and those of the children we raise. Without realising it we are raising little Americans and little Britons who will eventually view us with embarrassment, pity or disgust the same way imperialists view us.

The children will look at us as primitive and unsophisticated. One’s ability to speak fluently in a foreign language will be the new intelligence. How do you tell a child you raised with the British values and language that they must kneel before their grandfather when greeting him, when the culture they have been educated through says it is okay to call him David? How do you explain to her that she cannot wear a miniskirt to the rural areas when “her culture” emphasizes freedom of expression?

We cannot deny that due to globalisation, cultures are evolving. We have evolved from a society that at one point frowned upon women wearing trousers to one that has accepted the change. What differentiates a society that speaks its own language and values its culture from one that has completely adopted a foreign language and culture, is that their cultural evolution is slow and natural. This allows for change that does not upset the fundamentals of the evolving culture as it accommodates new trends without discarding the founding values and principles of that community.

A Ndebele child, brought up in Ndebele ways but in a modern society, knows that she can wear bum shorts to a friend’s braai but has to “cover up” when she visits her grandparents in the rural areas. In the same manner, well-balanced people know that we must master the English language, as it is currently our medium of education and the international language for business, but it must never take precedence over our mother tongues.

The promotion of local languages equalises us to the point where English can no longer be used as a measure of superiority and intelligence. If all signposts in Limpopo, South Africa, for example, were written in English and Venda, and all announcements in the area were made in local languages as well, all people regardless of education would understand what was being said at any given time.

All thriving economies, for example, China, France, Germany, South Korea and Russia use vernacular as their official languages. The African, who is said to be primitive and inferior, possesses the same imagination as any white man, but is saddled with the burden of translating his thoughts into a foreign language. What hope is there, then, that we can fully tackle our environments and ever be creators and inventors of anything?

Imagine how beautiful it would be, to hear a family speaking Shona in a supermarket in Iceland. Think of the emotion you would feel in seeing a young Ndebele girl curtsy as they receive an award at an arts festival in Brussels. How devastating is it, to know you have been neighbours with a Zulu girl in New York but she exhibits no Zulu trait?

The differences in our cultures are like the different colours of the rainbow and crayons in a box. They should paint pretty pictures in the world as they blend and stand out showcasing the beauty of our uniqueness. No language is better than another and nobody can be a custodian of another’s culture.

The next time you address your child in English, ask yourself why you have never heard a Chinese man living in Zimbabwe address their children in English, or Shona, or Swahili. When all is said and done, are you truly proud to be Xhosa, or do you secretly wish you were English?

One Response to "Language colonialism, and our part in it"

  1. Mtha  21st November 2016

    Excellent article which hits home.I like how you have constructively articulated your thoughts on the matter and as a new dad i am surely going to heed the call and prioritise my mother language over all foreign ones.

    Reply

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