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Loss of language hurts everyone

Languages are lost for many reasons. Some go as people give up isolated lives and pastimes and aggregate into larger, more integrated communities. Others become extinct as the result of invasions: the widespread colonisations of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, resulted in the loss of hundreds of indigenous tongues. Today, globalisation is leading another onslaught. The dominance of English (or more accurately, American English) is a worldwide phenomenon. The need to speak and write the world’s lingua franca is threatening to annihilate a new swathe of languages. It is estimated that by the end of the century, more than half of the six thousand languages still spoken around the world will have vanished.

So what? A legitimate question. What is wrong with better integration, communication, understanding? Is it not a sign of advancement, of unification? If the languages are going, let them go. If some languages wipe out others, it can only be because they are superior. Let it be. It’s a sign of progress.

Chief Marie Smith Jones lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She is the last living full-blooded member of the Eyak nation. She is also the last remaining native Eyak speaker. She is eighty-seven years old. Her name in Eyak is Udach’ Kuqaxa’a’ch’ – which she translates as “a sound that calls people from afar”. Her story was chronicled recently by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker magazine.

Kolbert tells us that the only other person who understands Eyak is a linguist named Michael Krauss, who is seventy. The Eyak language was killed off by pestilence (whole villages were wiped out in the nineteenth century by smallpox and measles); by a more powerful neighbouring tribe called the Tlingit; and ultimately, by the arrival of English-speaking Americans. Krauss has made it his life’s work to preserve Eyak. He has painstakingly constructed a dictionary of more than six thousand words and phrases by interviewing the dwindling band of Eyak speakers over several decades.

Is this man mad? What is he trying to achieve? He told Kolbert why he does it. Each language, says Krauss, is a unique repository of facts and knowledge about the world. Every tongue contains information about a people and their history, and has its place in the understanding of mankind. Every language, therefore, is a treasury of human experience. That certainly caught my interest. We need to pay attention to this man as he goes about his seemingly quixotic crusade.

The march of English (or various corruptions of it) seems relentless here in Kenya. Mastery of English is equated with advancement, achievement and progress. It is professional and social death to be inadequate in English. And emphasising mother tongues is for “natives” and eccentric professors. Material gain, status and respect all come from knowing English, and knowing it rather well.

I can’t really have a problem with that, can I? This is an English-language newspaper, after all, and every article I have ever written has been in English. So I am part of the problem. But it’s only a problem if we master English at the expense of our mother tongues. There is absolutely nothing wrong in having a common language, be it English or Kiswahili. In fact it is a necessity – we cannot govern this land, nor engage in commerce amongst ourselves or with the world at large without a common lingo. But why do we feel the need to neglect our given tongues and kill them off?

What I object to is our willingness to put everything “ethnic” aside in favour of everything “English-Western”. When you reject the culture you were born into, it can only be because you have become convinced of its inferiority. When you start to ape other cultures, it can only be because you feel a deep-seated shame about your own. Your language is the repository of all the aspects of your culture – your songs, your poems, your stories, your idioms – and when you consign it to the rubbish dump, you are revealing an innate hatred of what it means to be you. Without a language to represent it, any culture will wither away in one generation.

That is dangerous, for economic reasons as well as social. Taking on another’s language in a wholesale and indiscriminate manner usually means taking on his or her ideas, knowledge, perspectives and world-view. That is what we have done here. Will we really develop a unique strategy for development, an authentic method-set, a mentality we can call our own when we have to develop it solely in the language of the coloniser? I can’t see it happening. We might have to frame our thinking in English for the sake of mutual comprehension and communication – but we must let our genuine selves do the cogitation. Otherwise we are mere mimics perpetually playing the game of catch-up.

Look around you. The continental Europeans are mostly able to speak English these days (although some, like the French, pretend they do not). Yet they do not negate or kill off their own tongues in the process. Dutch children brought up in Kenya speak Dutch in addition to English and Kiswahili without much difficulty. All the emerging economies of Asia are proud of their mother tongues – does it occur to a Chinese businessman that he must bury his Mandarin in order to succeed? I think not. And is it then any surprise that those people have a unique development path and genuine achievements, and we do not?

In Kenya we are engaging in wilful rejection of our mother tongues – Gikuyu, Dholuo, Luhya, Maa, Gujerati, Punjabi and several dozen others – because we seem to be in the grip of a peculiar self-hatred. We do not take the trouble to teach our children these languages because we have happily outsourced their education to schools and to television. Speaking only our root language at home is the most effective way to ensure our children know it (did you yourself learn it any way other than having to speak it with your parents and grandparents?). But we are too far gone ourselves, too caught up in the fever of becoming clones and replicas.

To see this inferiority complex in action, look no further than our TV and radio stations. We don’t even want to speak English in our own natural ways. It seems the ability to read or report the news in a strange mutation of an accent is the desirable attribute of a top journalist. And so we have a generation of reporters twisting their mouths into unnatural shapes and twanging out the strangest sounding words. All the while confirming how much they hate their own origins, and ours. And transmitting the same toxic behaviour to millions of their countryfolk every night.

You can’t build a great country when you question your own foundation as a human being. It’s really our choice to make. If we believe there was value in the songs and expressions of our forebears, then we will take action to preserve their legacy and pass it on to our children. If we think our heritage is backward and primitive, we’ll let it go without too much thought. Which is it for you?

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