Speaking mother tongue won’t bring down the Tower of Babel

Friday November 23 2018

Tower of Babel: The ability to learn another person’s language demonstrates respect for difference and willingness to understand those not like us and enhances commonalities. FOTOSEARCH


Early this year, I attended a blessing ceremony for Amani, a young lady who was going off to study abroad.

Uncle Yusuf sat between Amani and her grandfather. Uncle’s duty was to interpret and prompt Amani to respond to the blessings her grandfather bestowed on her. Uncle Yusuf’s role was important; grandfather could only communicate in his mother tongue. Amani could only communicate in Kiswahili and English.

Amani’s failure to communicate in her mother tongue is not unique. Amani’s blessing ceremony came just a few weeks after research scholars Professor Maina Kinyatti, Dr Njoki Wamai and I visited the Kenya National Library in Nyeri.

Language was on our minds, as a bookshop in Nyeri had just told us they could not sell our books, written in English, because most of their customers preferred books written in Gikuyu, the most widely spoken mother tongue in Nyeri.

At the library, we chanced upon a group of about 50 children from a rural school. They were in the 10-12 age bracket, and were all reading English books.

Upon engaging them, we realised none of them could speak in their mother tongue. The irony of the request for Gikuyu books in the bookshop and a generation of young people who could not speak Gikuyu was not lost on us.


A month later, Njoki found a bookshop in Nyeri, Watani’s, located at the Nyeri bus stop, that gladly began to sell our books.

Since then, I have had several conversations with Africans who cannot speak their mother tongue. One of them, a man in his 40s from Zimbabwe named Munesa who was brought up in Malawi, told me he did not feel that not speaking his mother tongue in favour of English was a problem when he was young; but since he married and started a family, he is very conscious of how much of his roots he cannot transmit to his children.

Munesa has begun to teach himself by watching movies in his mother tongue. In the process, he learnt that the older we get, the more difficult it is to learn a language as the brain struggles to overcome new grammar rules. He has also discovered what a great carrier of cultural heritage language is.

Proverbs, stories handed down from generation to generation over centuries carry the fabric of his ethnic community. Munesa now feels that he has deprived his children of enriching experiences and vocabulary.

In his book Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama poignantly explains the pregnant silences between his grandmother and himself when left alone together as she spoke only her mother tongue, Dholuo and he, English.

Munesa feels inadequate in the company of people speaking his mother tongue. He makes up for his inability to speak his mother tongue by teaching his children the values and other aspects of his culture. His wife tries to help but she too cannot speak her mother tongue, which is different from Munesa’s, although she has no problem understanding a conversation.

The environment around them does not help much. People speak English in offices and employees who communicate better advance their careers faster.

Amani’s mother remembers how her daughter stopped speaking her mother tongue. They were living in a city. Amani came home to say her friends did not understand the language she spoke. Slowly, through Amani’s influence, it became normal for the family to speak the language her friends spoke, Kiswahili.

This is the story of many families, whose language of communication is determined by the company they keep. Amani’s mother was ashamed that uncle Yusuf had to interpret for Amani.

The school culture did not help. In East Africa, particularly Kenya, in years gone by, the notorious “monto,” a wooden slab teachers hung onto the chests of those who spoke their mother tongues in school, was a devastating weapon against local cultures.

One could only be relieved of the dreaded “monto” burden by catching red handed another child speaking their mother tongue. Things hardly worked out this way, as fellow learners on spotting the dreaded “monto carrier” would speak English. The “monto” was, a punishment designed to humiliate.

The influx of people of different ethnic communities into big cities and across borders tends to facilitate intermarriage. Though excellent for creating societies that respect differences, intermarriages also lead to parents who understand their respective vernaculars but are more inclined to speak in say, English, or Kiswahili.

Nelson Mandela, who demonstrated in so many ways the need to celebrate difference, emphasised the importance of reaching out using one’s mother tongues. He famously said, “If you talk to a person in a language he understands, that goes to his head, but if you talk to him in his own mother tongue, that goes to his heart.”

The ability to learn another person’s language demonstrates respect for difference and willingness to understand those not like us and enhances commonalities. It is pluralism in practice.

All is not lost for Amani. The loss of a mother tongue is known as first language attrition. Research, however, suggests that the language is not lost but unconsciously retained and can be recovered.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]