Home » Governance » Indigenous Languages, Children of the Diaspora

Those readers who follow football will know that people like Arsene Wenger speak five languages and Jose Mourinho the same number as well. It doesn’t take an effort for a child to learn to separate languages. But it will take an adult’s own prejudices to teach a child that one language is inferior to another.

Last week, this column covered taxation issues with particular reference to musicians and some other performing artistes. This provoked the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe to engage. They responded by writing a very complimentary e-mail. Just as an ancillary item, they added what could be called “polite clarifications”.

It is those clarifications that were going to be discussed and some challenged this week, until several videos depicting Zimbabweans characterising what one could arguably call cultural decadence started dropping into phone inboxes and circulating in social media.

Then there was no running away from socio-political commentary.

One woman recorded herself describing a delicate and revered part of her womanhood which she alleges had been touched for a fee of $50 and the touch-and-pay partner (who happens to be a pastor) decided that what he had touched was worth $6 only.

He allegedly reneged on his part of the deal thus inviting public humiliation for his efforts.

This part of womanhood they fight over is just a sacrilege to be spoken of in that manner. A crowd gathered and the crowd was in agreement that the price for a pay-per-view or touch was a bit steep.

A fight ensues and the embarrassment goes both ways.

Another depicts a different Zimbabwean woman saying in very raw and explicit terms, she was yearning for some dalliance with a male sex organ. She later issued an interview that it was her husband’s male sex member that she was missing and not just any available. It was too late, the damage had been done. In the same week, Miss World Zimbabwe was stripped of her crown because of her past indiscretions with the smartphone.

But the winner in the self-destruction category was a family that recorded a child who looks eight but claims to be 12 spitting obscenities in a very angry and petulant way.

The menacing child’s language is so untamed and unprintable in a family paper. Strangely, he shouts expletives to adults who include his mother. Rumour has it that the family lives in Birmingham and the father is Congolese and the mother is Zimbabwean. The most poignant part of this clearly troubled child’s diatribe is the bit about his not being an African and that Africans have Ebola or something to that effect. This child is referred to as Michael in the video.

The video went viral and was even shared by the RampB singer and Hollywood star, Tyrese Gibson, on his Facebook wall which has over 26 million followers. This family has gained notoriety.

It is Michael’s identity conflict as evidenced by his claims that he is not an African and his apparent distaste for his African heritage is what really stands out. He even joined those that stereotype Africans as full of diseases like Ebola.

One wonders if Michael was a speaker of either Shona or Lingala whether he would disavow of his African heritage. Would he continue to feel that he was not an African?

If there is an area which people react to with a heightened sensitivity, it is that of raising of their children. You see reader, nobody has a blueprint on marriages or kid-raising.

The fact is that you fumble on getting some things right and some not so great. It is just a question of mixing it up in a very eclectic way borrowing some values from one’s own upbringing and some deliberately choosing a different pathway to that endowed in them by their own parents or whoever brought them up. The final product is a human being who has never existed and probably will never exist again. That is what makes parenthood an extraordinary experience. However, society expects every parent to provide it with a human being fit for some sort of usefulness to it.

In this long latitude of parental choices, some Diasporan parents have chosen to completely ban the mother tongue from their houses and therefore their kids cannot speak Shona, Ndebele, Kalanga or any of the other 13 languages recognised by the Constitution as official languages of Zimbabwe. They just speak one language, English. This is what is called being monolingual. Some have decided to make their children at least bilingual by letting them speak at least their own mother tongue and English.

If the family is like Michael’s family then Michael would be conversant in Shona and Lingala as well as English in a situation known as multilingualism.

People have a right to choose the way they raise their own children. No one has a right to pass judgment as long as the outcome is acceptable to society and conforms to societal norms and standards.

The State has very little role in prescribing how people live their lives or raise their kids as long as they do them no harm. This is what has also informed the minds of those parents who have simply chosen to ignore their own mother tongue in their households.

One of the reasons given is that in Zimbabwe their whole family speaks English so they won’t really have an opportunity to use the vernacular.

Moreover they hardly go there anyway. So learning their other language would just confuse the kids for no apparent reason really.

Possibly the basis for this is found in the 19th century when bilingualism was considered to be detrimental to a child’s development. It was thought having a different language at home and another at school would confuse children or retard their appreciation of the main language (English for Anglophone country residence). But now with more than half of the world’s population speaking at least two languages, that notion has been discredited by a lot of empirical evidence to the contrary.

It has now been concluded scientifically that babies start to be able to distinguish between two languages from the age of 8 months. They also can distinguish between language based facial expressions from that age.

They thus are learning to dynamically switch between two languages, thus developing cognitive flexibility. Those children and of course adults who speak two languages have been shown to have a better concentration because of the nimbleness that is needed to seamlessly navigate between the two languages. There is a clear cognitive aantage in bilingualism. As a matter of fact, it has been proven that those that can speak two languages find it easier to learn a third.

Those readers who follow football will know that people like Arsene Wenger speak five languages and Jose Mourinho the same number as well. It doesn’t take an effort for a child to learn to separate languages. But it will take an adult’s own prejudices to teach a child that one language is inferior to another.

There is more to speaking one’s mother language beyond the sharpened intelligence. There is the major issue of being able to maintain ties with the whole family. What we say and how we say it influences what we think or believe. Words are said to be the most compelling tool of cultural expression. Songs, poems, myths as well as practices like lobola (bride price) are all underpinned by language. You cannot charge lobola without talking in the original terms and this writer will not even attempt to translate those to English as it will ridiculously trivialise the importance of these (matekenyandebvu, makandinzwanani, vhuramuromo, kupinda mumusha, mafukudzadumbu etc.).

At the relationships level, there is a Zimbabwean who does not allow his sibling’s children to call him uncle. He normally remarks tongue in cheeky that in these days of serial relationships, the person you called uncle was your mother’s boyfriend, not your father’s brother. The sister’s children have to call him Sekuru and the brothers’ children have to call him Babamukurubabamunini. He contends that this is important because of the “Baba” which denotes that one is some kind of a father. In other secular folklore, the person that one chooses to take an interest in the child’s upbringing and development and will look after your children if something happens to you is called their godparent. In most Zimbabwean sub-cultures, that was never necessary because one has many fathers and mothers (baba-mukuru, mai-gurubaba-munini, mai-nini) who will stand in the gap without pausing a heartbeat.

So language is used to mediate culture. There are many interacting reasons why Michael is how he is, but this could be one of those that make him not identify with his cultural heritage.

He does not speak the language, probably does not even eat the food at home and of course he clearly does not get the “African model of discipline”. Anyone who gets the latter knows what that entails.

While English has generally been accepted as the language of international business, politics and relations, it does not make African vernacular languages any inferior. If one can speak these with equal fluency even better.

There is nothing to be lost anyway but a lot to be gained by having access to one’s own culture. Visiting historical Greek sites is all good but taking one’s children to visit the Great Zimbabwe is equally important, right?

Does the question of whether kids born in the Diaspora being able to speak at least one of their African vernaculars have a wrong or right answer?

If the child that was saying they are not an African could speak Shona, could they still have complexes about their African identity?

Black Americans still call themselves African Americans 400 years later. There is no antagonism between the two languages and there is no competition either. Both can be spoken if only for the reason to engender cultural identity. In parts of America, the Hispanics who cannot speak Spanish are ashamed of themselves and shunned by the community.

Source : The Herald

Archives