Language Key Tool in Changing Societies

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 19 12:32:02 UTC 2006

Language Key Tool in Changing Societies

The East African Standard (Nairobi)

September 18, 2006

By Kimani Njogu Nairobi

Language plays a critical role in communication, but most media
discussions have paid little attention to it. Yet, by doing so, we would
develop more inclusive systems that respect diversity even as they
celebrate our oneness. Languages open doors into cultures, value systems,
community dialogue and social transformation. The development of language
policies and their implementation should not be incidental, but deliberate
and sustained. Positions taken by leaders on language matters hint at the
value attached to culture and communities. Language - both as a metaphor
of life and a mode of communication - can be used to shape global and
local leadership.  The information superhighway, the unfettered flow of
people and capital across borders, the global climate of fear and death,
the spread of diseases, crime and insecurity, the infiltration of Western
languages and images into villages and the inflation of claims of
'oneness', even as marginalisation become current, create a sense of
unease and discomfort.

They are seen as agents of social alienation and cultural destruction in a
world where culture is important, not just as an agent of identity but
also as a tool for national development. Leaders must re-examine their
tendency to polarise the world and rebuild trust in our collective
humanity, anchoring tolerance of other viewpoints, interpretations and
languages. It is vital that we see value in things that are good not just
for ourselves but also for others. Genuine leadership does not take
culture for granted and is respectful of cultural expression. It is
important that we support various language committees recently set up by
the Culture ministry. The teams, while developing local languages, will
also contribute to the promotion of Kiswahili as a national and regional
language. Languages play an important role in resisting injustices and
regenerating just and meaningful lives. Through language, vibrant,
innovative and dynamic social processes are developed and nurtured.
Languages facilitate self-organisation - the coming together of people.
They create self and collective efficacy vital for social transformation
in injecting faith and belief in ability - individually and with others -
to move things. Languages link the past, present and the future.

Unfortunately, during the tsunamis that Africa has faced (slavery,
colonialism and neocolonialism), ancient memories have been targeted for
erasure. The forces of globalisation target and undermine local
creativity. In his latest novel, Dunia Yao (Their World), renowned
Kiswahili writer Said Ahmed Mohamed has shown that Africa needs to rethink
how it opens itself up to global forces. By writing about globalisation in
Kiswahili, Mohamed identifies Swahiliphone Africa as his immediate
audience. He is part of an emerging cultural leadership, which sees value
in indigenous knowledge. The new leadership sees the connection between
the struggle for indigenous languages and the bigger one for democracy,
justice, rights and freedoms.  It seeks to correct errors made in the past
on culture through dialogue and language of inclusion.

They celebrate the value of contact among languages and seek space for
each voice to be heard by questioning colonialism in its various
manifestations. To ensure that local knowledge is incorporated in the
larger society, leaders should set up appropriate ways for its
implementation. This would be through the integration of local knowledge
and democracy, conflict resolution, economic participation and social
interaction. The new leadership engages communities in determining what to
eradicate, revive, revise, emphasise and re-energise. They do not take the
people they serve for granted. Instead, they deliberately consult with
them so that people become the leaders. They embrace progressive economic
and cultural policies and make dialogue and civic education central to
their work. Culture is integrated into the development agenda so that it
resonates with people's aspirations.

The crisis of values in the world today may, in fact, be due to reluctance
to take culture as a dynamic social process. Culture encompasses the
complex whole, including knowledge, beliefs, art, laws, morals, customs
and habits which people and institutions acquire over time. It brings
together matters related to politics, religion, family, business and
commerce, art and linguistics among other things. The Government ought to
accelerate two processes related to culture: The enactment of a cultural
policy and formation of a Kiswahili National Council. The policy should
stipulate measures the Government will take to conserve, encourage and
protect a people's way of life. It ought to identify communication and
cultural activities such as broadcasting, film, book and magazine
publishing, television, radio, the Internet, mobile telephones and other
forms of new media to be used in this endeavour.

It will be linked to freedom of expression because diversity of opinion
and openness pave way for a robust environment for inter-ethnic and
inter-faith dialogue, tolerance and democracy to thrive. The Culture
ministry should form a National Kiswahili Council to smooth the way for
Kenya's better representation at the East African Kiswahili Council. The
regional council is being formed following the establishment of the East
African Community. It provides for the development and promotion of
Kiswahili as the region's lingua franca. In 2001, the third East African
Tripartite Commission directed the secretariat to spearhead the formation
of an East African Kiswahili Council which would harmonise vocabulary,
promote literature and advocate the use of the language in international
fora. The East African Committee on Education, Culture and Sports set up a
task force to expedite the establishment of the Kiswahili Council.

The writer is a language expert


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