• July 13th, 2020

Opinion - Glorifying English and forsaking African languages

The preference and glorification of English language usage in homes and schools keep rising in Namibia at the expense of local indigenous languages such as Oshiwambo, Thimbukushu, Otjiherero, Lozi and Damara/Nama. It is common that in many homes, especially in urban and peri-urban areas, African children and parents use English as their home language, with children in these homes acquiring English as their first language.

 Parents in such settings rebuke and admonish visitors, friends and relatives who attempt to speak to their children in their mother tongues. Some parents ironically take pride in their children’s failure to communicate with their grandparents in their African languages or mother tongues. Stories are told of how old grannies and grandpas struggle to communicate with their grandchildren when they visit rural areas or farms with their parents during holidays. The problem continues when grannies and grandpas come to town for various reasons. 
In my observation, I have come across statements similar to these: “My daughter speaks better English than me; she can correct my English”;

“My child cannot speak our mother language”; and “I like my child’s school because everyone at that school speaks English, and there are no African languages in the curriculum.”  While some parents hide behind the fact that they can teach their children their mother tongues at home, others go to the extent of denigrating and demeaning their mother languages. In essence, both groups of parents consider their mother languages useless in the lives of their children.  In turn, the children use English effortlessly and take it as their natural language. Most of these children successfully mimic English native speakers, trying ‘to speak English through the nose’, a term some critics of this practice have coined over the years. Most of these African children have perfected the art of speaking in English to such an extent that they have acquired native-like or near native-like competence of the usage of English. And when this happens, the parents of these children gleefully and excitedly make comments praising their children – sometimes overdoing it in an embarrassing fashion. 

There is nothing wrong in having a native-like command of English for learners. It i becomes wrong when the ability to speak English is taken as a yardstick of success, nobility, and power in our society. It becomes wrong when the usage of English leads to identity crisis. It becomes wrong when people laugh at English mistakes that some learners of this language make.

  What many people do not know is that there is no one type of English.  Even in England or the United Kingdom itself, although there is British English, people there do not speak it the same way; there are different forms and accents of English. The varieties of English increase outside the borders of United Kingdom. There is Indian English, South African English, Namibian English, Chinese English, Canadian English, Nigerian English, American English, Irish English, Australian English, Zimbabwean English, Japanese English and many more that are collectively known as World Englishes in sociolinguistics.

The glorification of English by Africans can be explained from a colonial, historical perspective. The white supremacist policies imposed foreign languages and cultures on the colonised black people, resulting in diglossic language situations that made white men’s languages dominate over indigenous African languages. In worst situations, some black people lost their identities by adopting the languages and cultures of the white colonisers. The white men socialised these black people to believe that whiteness made them powerful and better human beings. The black people in these situations ceased to believe in themselves. They hated everything that was black and embraced everything that was white.  The great philosopher Fantz Fanon published  book titled “Black Skin, White Masks”, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Decolonising the mind : The politics of language in African literature” – books that conscientized the black readers about the negative effects of colonisation. In this regard, Fanon emphatically pointed out that “The Negro’s (black man’s) behavior makes him akin to an obsessive neurotic type, or, if one prefers, he puts himself into a complete situational neurosis. In the man of color (black man) there is a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence” (“Black Skin, White Masks”, p. 43). In other words, the black man develops fear of his blackness and runs away from his identity by adopting the white man’s language and culture. Ironically and figuratively, the black man wears a white mask, hence Fanon’s book title “Black Skin, White Masks”. Black men change their meaningful African names and glorify themselves with ridiculous names like Shame, Forgiveme, Godknows, Hardlife, Nomore, Knowledge, Pride, Sixpence, Forget, Tears, Hatred, and Lastborn. In Fanon’s words the thinking is: “One is white, so one is rich, so one is beautiful, so one is intelligent.”
 As for wa Thiong’o, the language of the black man is crucial in every sphere of his life. He argued that “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to the  (black) people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to their entire universe” (“Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature”, p.4).

Readers, I want you to take a pause and reflect on the points raised by Fanon and wa Thiong’o above. Do you want your children to wear white skins and lose their mother languages and identities? Is African identity necessary for the survival of people in the 21st century? If white masks make people get jobs and more money, why should parents force their children to learn and speak their native languages? If white masks are all people need to be respectable, successful, and powerful in life, why bother children with learning and speaking their indigenous African languages? 

My overall message is that let us not forsake our beautiful African languages. It is important for our children to learn and speak their African languages, in addition to other languages, including English as a second language.
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Staff Reporter
2020-06-05 09:22:31 | 1 months ago

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