"Why mother tongues are dying" (Kenya)

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Tue Apr 24 13:43:16 UTC 2007

FYI (fwd from ILAT)...  Don

Why mother tongues are dying


In a bus headed for Nairobi, an FM station keeps travellers company as chatty presenters talk politics and read the news in Kikamba. Passengers exchange knowing glances and chip in a word or two, but not all understand what is being said.

Angelina Mueni, 18, is one such person. She is not familiar with her mother tongue. "I can understand what is being said but I cannot speak the language," she says. Since childhood, she has only spoken English and Swahili.

"My parents and siblings all speak Swahili and English and since am the lastborn, I had to take after them. After all, how can I start speaking Kikamba when no one else in the house speaks it?" she asks.

Although she says she is learning the language, she has a long way to go before she can speak it with confidence. "I think it is too late for me to start learning now," she says.

Her parents are not worried about her inability to communicate in their mother tongue, she says. "If they were, they would have taken drastic actions like taking me to the rural areas to stay with my grandparents or better yet, be around people who speak Kikamba throughout," she says adding that she has only been to the grandparents' place twice.

Kenyans may not know it, but visitors from other countries marvel at the rich diversity of local languages in the country. It is a heritage that is in perpetual danger as young people shun the language of their mothers.

Language use leaves a mark

When Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched Murogi wa Kagoogo, a novel written in Kikuyu, many scholars laughed it off as a joke. How does a scholar of Ngugi’s repute expect us to read his work in Kikuyu, they asked.

Ngugi had demonstrated by word and deed that he was willing to go great lengths to keep African languages alive. For him, using foreign languages in literature was a mark of neo-colonisation.

When a child is born in a given community, she acquires a language and learns how to use it, with whom and when.

Language experts say today's children tend to lose their cultural identity, language and culture, the language being a prime transmitter of human culture from one generation to the next.

Anthropologists say all language uses, through all stages of cultural evolution, leave an mark on society. This means that if a generation misinterprets its language, its culture is automatically in danger of misinterpretation.

The danger of some languages disappearing is so real that the United Nations Scietific and Cultural Organisation regularly conducts studies worldwide.

The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing says a language is endangered if it is no longer learned by children or at least, by a large part of the children of that community.

Six Kenyan languages are extinct, five are seriously endangered, at least three are endangered and a number of others are potentially endangered, says Unesco.

Languages of the El Molo and Omotik, which are still recognised as Kenyan languages, are on the brink of extinction.

Nancy Mackenzie says how children are brought up determines whether they speak their mother tongue. "Most of a child’s life is spent with a nanny who does not come from the same background as the child’s parents," she says.

"The nanny will speak to the child in either Kiswahili or English and in the end, the child ends up speaking the same language as the nanny."

Parents to blame

According to her, the buck stops with parents. "If they hire a nanny who is not from their background, they will have to accept the fact that their child will grow up not knowing his mother tongue especially if they spend little time with their child," says Mackenzie, a mother of two who lives in Nairobi.

But Rose Wanjiku, a Kikuyu married to James Omondi, a Luo, feels mother tongue is not that important.

"All that matters is efficient communication," she says. "My children do not speak either of our languages and I do not consider it a problem. Although they cannot utter a single word in either language, they understand what is being said," she says of her four children.

Sometimes, she says, she speaks her mother tongue to her children and they respond in Kiswahili or English. "We never confuse each other by the language we use. Whether Kikuyu, Dholuo or Kiswahili, we understand each other perfectly," she says adding that it is all that counts.

Not so for Robert Ocholla, a father of two. He sends his children to Kisii whenever schools close "specifically to ensure they practise their mother tongue and to interact with my parents".

"It is my duty to make sure that the children stay in touch with their culture and mother tongue plays a big part in the their upbringing," says Ochola, who lives in Nairobi.

His children, he says, can speak Gusii fluently without mixing it with Kiswahili or English and without stammering.

If people are distinguished by the distinct language they speak, the question remains: Does it matter if Kenya’s indigenous languages died?

Maurice Ragutu, a language teacher at the University of Nairobi, says it does matter. "Vernacular or mother tongue helps people to trace their ancestral roots, culture, heritage and traditions, which all help promote unity in a community," he says.

According him, indigenous languages are dying not only in Kenya but also in other countries. "The society we live in is dynamic," he says, saying the dynamism explained why some languages are under threat of extinction.

"Many parents are to blame for their children’s inability to speak their mother tongue," says the lecturer. "It is the duty of the parent to expose children to their language," he says, adding that children can only learn their mother tongue by being exposed to it.

He gives the example of an experiment involving an Egyptian Pharaoh who thought that Egyptian was the only language in the world. "He took a Pheonician newborn and gave it to a shepherd to keep it in seclusion," he explains.

The shepherd was ordered not to utter a single word within the child's earshot. "The main objective of conducting this experiment was to find out if mother tongue was inborn or learnt through exposure."

In the experiment, at the age of eight months, the child uttered his first word in Phoenician. "He said 'Bekos,' which is Phoenician for bread," he says.

Psycholinguists also say language is mastered at birth and mastered in youth. "From the ages of three months to three years, a child's first language comes automatically," says Ragutu.

>>From the age of ten onwards, as Mueni’s case demonstrates, it is difficult to learn one’s mother tongue.

"It is possible to learn it as a second language but not as quickly and not as deeply like one would have mastered when young," he says.

"Fluency could also become a problem when they decide to learn," he says. "It will be like a Kenyan learning French or German as a second language," he explains.

Political power, wealth and language

Language experts are concerned that children are not mastering their mother tongues as before. "Even if they are born in the rural areas, you cannot compare their fluency with that of their parents," he says, noting that in the long run, some languages could easily disappear.

"Linguistically speaking, on the matter of mixed parentage, a child is most likely to learn the language of the dominant partner, who in this case is the mother because it is said that a small child is the property of the mother," he says, adding that a growing child tends to spend more time with the mother at the time a child learns how to speak. 

He says taking the child to rural areas can help nurture their mother tongue but that also depends on whom they interact with. "Rural areas are not like they used to be before," he says.

Although many languages are under threat, many governments have policies to preserve them. "Political power, wealth and the size of the population that speaks them as well as how they value them will determine whether a language survives," he says giving an example of matatu (public transport) drivers.

"You will find that when they are speaking to each other, they use their mother tongues, whether Kikuyu, Dholuo or Kikamba," he says.

According to him, the matatu drivers take pride in speaking their own languages. "All languages are equal as long as they can communicate," he says.

Globalisation, says Ragutu, not only threatens languages but whole communities. "In Venezuela, the Trumai tribe is already extinct while Latin is considered to be a dead language."

A language is considered dead, he says, is if no native speaker speaks it. "Latin is one of them because even though it is used by many nations, none is an original speaker," he says.

Ancient Greek, he says, has also disappeared, so has Prot-Indo-European, which was spoken in Europe and some parts of Asia.

In Kenya, endangered languages include Suba, El Molo, which has only 300 speakers, Pongok from Western, which were absorbed by the Luhya and the Tiriki.

Others which are on the brink of extinction include Boni, Kore, Segeju and Dahalo from the Coast; Kinare, Sogoo, Lorkoti and Yaaku in the Central; Ongamo and Omotik in the south and Bong’om, Terik and Suba in the west.

In the Bible, the original language, which is called the "language of Adam", was also lost at the Tower of Babel.

According to Ragutu, the Bible shows Adam as the originator of human language, having named all that was on earth in his own words as God commanded him.

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