On Sunday, 21 February, the world celebrates the 2021 International Mother Language Day under the umbrella of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). This year’s theme is ‘Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society.’
The emphasis this year is that when we use the child’s first language in the first years of the child’s education, this will promote multilingualism and therefore inclusion in both education and society. Using the child’s language in early education forms the basis of the development of all concepts in the child’s mind.
Also, the International Mother Language Day promotes inclusivity; no language should be left out – all languages must be celebrated. No language should be regarded as more superior or more important than others. Your language is so important that other people should respect it. The underlying message is that your mother language is so important that you must be proud of it. As you read this article, I want you to pause for a moment and say in your mother language, “I am proud of my mother language.”
As a parent, you could ask your child to say “I am proud of my other language” using your mother language. Teachers, you can ask your learners to do likewise. This simple exercise will go a long way in conscientising children and learners about the importance of their languages and International Mother Language Day.
If our children know that the whole world is celebrating mother languages on 21 February every year, they will begin to appreciate the significance of their languages which many take for granted. To make it memorable, parents could buy books written in their mother languages and give their children as presents on Sunday, 21 February, and tell them that this an important day when everyone is supposed to celebrate their mother languages in the world.
My argument for buying boos for children is that, if people were crazy about celebrating Valentine’s Day last week, sending and receiving those expensive gifts and flowers, why not spend some money buying their children valuable books written in their mother languages?
Let your children know that their mother language is important for the transmission of their culture and for their identity as who they are in a multilingual society. It is intended that by knowing the importance of their mother language and culture, they will be able to tolerate and accept other people’s languages and cultures, thereby fostering a culture of peace in the country. Let children understand from an early age that people do not choose to be born speaking the languages they speak. If they understand this, they will be able to embrace all people speaking different languages from their own, and accept that there are different cultures and tribes and races from their own.
When political and social systems in the country always embrace and promote diversity, children will grow tolerating people different from them. When this happens, we talk about the existence of a culture of peace in a non-violent society.
Although the language policy in Namibia stipulates that mother-tongue instruction must be used from grade 1 to grade 3, many schools, especially in urban and peri-urban settings do not observe this. The policy states that English can be used as a medium of instruction from grade 4 onwards, but most schools in the stated areas use English as a medium of instruction from grade 1 without even seeking permission from the parent ministry as the policy demands in such cases.
The argument often advanced by the management of such schools is that it is difficult to identify and use one mother language in a cosmopolitan city like Windhoek to use as a medium of instruction. They end up using English as a medium of instruction as it is a lingua franca for all the learners speaking many different mother languages.
While this is convincing, there is a deliberate choice of using English in these schools with the support of parents. In a study on language preferences my colleagues and I conducted in some schools around Windhoek a few years ago, we found that parents wanted their children to be taught in English and not in their mother languages.
The situation becomes worse with some parents. What is saddening these days is that many people have forsaken their mother languages in preference of foreign languages, mainly European languages. Some parents believe that when their children speak foreign languages like English, French and Portuguese, this makes them more superior than those who speak in their mother languages. Such parents have banned the use of their mother languages in their homes since they consider these languages to be inferior to English, French and Portuguese or other European languages.
In such cases, it is not an understatement that we can talk of what Kenyan author and academic Ngugi wa Thi’ong’o metaphorically dubbed a cultural bomb. Writing in his book titled Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Theatre, Ngugi noted: “The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of the struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify themselves with that which is furthest from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages rather than their own.”
As we celebrate International Mother Day on 21 February, let us remember that we came to understand the phenomena in the environment through our mother languages. It was through our mother languages that we first came into contact with the meanings of nature around us. Your mother language is a natural gift that enabled you to recognize and make sense of physical objects and abstract concepts around you at an early age and as you grew up. Educators, be reminded that psychologists say that for pedagogical reasons, children must learn in their mother language especially in their foundational years in early grades or first education.