My appreciation of the value of language came very early in life.
Having started my education in post-colonial Zimbabwe in the 1980s, my parents were among those who sent their children to multi-racial schools previously reserved for white children, in order to enhance our chances of success in life.
However, when we got there, the systems were still intact and the rules were strict. For instance, we were not allowed to speak our local languages within the school premises and anyone caught doing so would have their knuckles rapped with the sharp end of a ruler. That may seem like a minor punishment but not to a child below the age of 10. As a child in boarding school, I only saw my widowed mother on some weekends and during the holiday.
The shaping of my thoughts and values was left largely to self discovery and school authorities, in a system that did not promote our languages and cultural identity.
Like all children, I happily adhered to the school rules and only spoke English. I learnt to think, dream, feel, imagine and primarily function in English. I was quite content with this existence until the day my mother and her friend paid me a surprise visit and I suddenly realised, to my horror, that I had forgotten the basic greeting in one of our local languages.
In our culture it was rude for a child to greet elders in English as it was a foreign language. It was both prudent and respectful to greet elders first and in their language. I greeted my mother first in Shona and intended to greet her friend in her language, Ndebele, but the words failed me.
I remember standing between my mother’s yellow Renault and the imposing white washed girls’ hostel, just staring and gaping at the visitor, who was patiently waiting for me to dutifully greet her. Try as I might, the Ndebele greeting stubbornly refused to emerge from where it was buried in the recesses of my mind. The simple word, “salibonani” evaded me as if in a mischievous effort to embarrass me.
After a long awkward and uncomfortable silence, my mother’s friend greeted me, jolting me to remember the response. The rest of the visit was pleasant.
However, after my mother and her friend left, my young mind pondered and reflected on a few fundamentals. Although I was only eight years old, I made some decisions that I have carried into adulthood. I promised myself never to forget our local languages. A seemingly simple promise that was difficult to keep in the face of numerous challenges such as being in a society that subordinates its languages to English. I pledged to remember, despite not being able to speak the languages during the school term. I vowed to remain mindful of our languages, even though they constituted less than 20 per cent of our curriculum, with little room for practice.
Those vows were later renewed when I was on a flight to the UK around 2008. During a moment of boredom, I looked around me and started reading the titles of the novels being read by those near me. The languages were all foreign to me. It struck me that all these people were reading books in their own languages. Perhaps it was because I was on a Dutch airline. Whatever the reason, I became acutely aware of my alienation from my language. I was holding a book with an English title and the only other person with an English book was a black woman sitting diagonally opposite me. I guessed that she was Zimbabwean, and I was right. Had she not been Zimbabwean, she probably would have been from a former British colony.
Now I take time to invest in learning and practicing more of our local languages.
Although I speak both Shona and Ndebele fluently, I struggle with idioms and proverbs, largely because I was deprived of the languages early. Sadly, I speak local languages with a tinge of an English accent, which sometimes creates the impression that I can’t speak the languages. I have found ways to work around my handicaps though, by reading and speaking Shona and Ndebele as often as I can. When the opportunity presents itself, I try to learn other local languages like Tonga, Kalanga etc.
It saddens me when modern parents boast and take pleasure in their children’s inability to speak local languages. What those parents do not realise is that they are robbing those children of their birthright and depriving them of their cultural heritage. The truth is, no matter how well we speak English, we can never own it, but we can truly say we are the custodians of Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, Nambya, Kalanga and other languages that are spoken locally. Taking pride in the inability to speak one’s language is not a sign of education, but rather, exposure of painful ignorance and cultural bankruptcy.
Indeed learning other languages enables us to function effectively in a global village. It also helps to mask tribal divisions, among its other advantages. However, this does not mean we should recklessly abandon who we are and discard our heritage.
Whether we like it or not, there is an intricate link between language and identity and until we recognise that, we will float around like people without roots.
Language is a central feature of human identity. There is a level of pride that comes with being able to say “I am Matilda Moyo from Zimbabwe and I am Karanga.” Beyond that, there is some pride in being able to speak the language. Indeed let us learn other languages, but let us not forget our own languages, which are central to who we are.
By Matilda Moyo
18 January 2014