Is mother tongue on its deathbed as world celebrates?

On February 21, 2023, the world will observe the International Mother Language Day

In Summary
  • The idea to celebrate this day was the brainchild of Bangladesh when the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) fought for recognition of the Bangla language.
  • Gichure says it is disheartening to find a medic seeking an interpreter for his patient despite the two sharing a common language.
English language vs Sheng
English language vs Sheng
Image: OZONE

On February 21, 2023, the world will observe the International Mother Language Day.

First recognised by UNESCO on November 17, 1999, the goal of this fete is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.

Later on, the day was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly with the adoption of UN resolution 56/262 in 2002.

The celebration is part of a broader initiative "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world" as adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 May 2007 in UN resolution 61/266, which also established 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

The idea to celebrate this day was the brainchild of Bangladesh when the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) fought for recognition of the Bangla language.

Africa’s celebrated literary icon Ngugi Wa Thiong’o once quipped, “If you know all, and I mean all, the languages of the world and you do not know your mother tongue, that is enslavement. If you know your mother tongue and add all the languages of the world to it, that’s empowerment,”.

Today hardly anyone seems interested in being identified by one’s native language, a scenario that may soon spell a sure death knell to the mother tongue within the next few years.

For instance, despite the fact that most of the people residing in Nyeri being predominantly locals, few if any employ the use of local dialect in the day-to-day transactions.

Majority of the residents have completely ceased using the language they grew up conversing in and embraced dialects that were once perceived as alien and at times a show-off.

And for those unable to converse in English and Kiswahili urban esperantos such as sheng synonymous with the youth have become the new norm.

For Daniel Mutahi who is in his late sixties, the advent of ‘strange’ dialects such as sheng is a trend that has created a chasm between the old and the young with either speaking at different sides of the divide.

Mutahi blames the current education system which he says puts more emphasis on foreign languages while neglecting to inculcate mastery of the native language on the learner.

He says nowadays he finds it almost impossible to communicate with his own grandchildren due to the language barrier, a challenge he says was unheard of during his childhood days.

“The government should reintroduce teaching of vernacular in the lower primary schools as a matter of priority. We need to be conversant in our local languages first before going ahead in adopting other peoples’ dialects. Embracing western ideals and cultures will soon transform us into slaves of others and leave us without any heritage worth talking about,” he warns.

On the other hand, Samuel Gitonga, a 20-year-old student at the Nyeri Training Institute says while he has no problem conversing in his local dialect, but peer pressure from friends and even people from his family often finds him switching to Swahili.

However, unlike Mzee Mutahi who faults the sweeping changes that sheng has transformed the society as far as communication is concerned, Gitonga says it has eased the way we communicate.

Sheng is a game changer for the youth since we can converse and understand each other very well. Therefore, while I have no problem with using my local language, I also support the adoption of new languages for ease of communication especially where it becomes impossible to understand each other due to language barrier,” he argues.

But for others like Francis Gichure, 47, discarding our local dialects for alien ones is akin to robbing us of our unique identity that makes us stand separate.

Gichure says it is disheartening to find a medic seeking an interpreter for his patient despite the two sharing a common language.

“When we forget our heritage, we lose the very identity that makes us unique. I often find it really disgraceful when a doctor says he cannot communicate with an elderly patient and therefore needs an interpreter yet the two come from the same ethnic community,” Gichure said.

He now says it's high time for Kenyans to go back to their roots and first learn their own languages before going out to adopt foreign dialects.

Ann Karuga an officer at the Kenya National Library Services reports that very few, if any, take time to read vernacular literature at the facility.

She observes that for the years she has worked at the center, the only people who visit the place to read books published in local languages are the elderly or those undertaking academic research.

“Most of the young people you find reading such books (vernacular literature) are those studying languages or doing linguistics as a course. The rest are the elderly persons still interested in the written works of prominent writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Apart from this category, you will rarely find anyone visiting the library just to read a book written in any local language,” Karuga explains. 

Benson Otiende who moved into Nyeri from Western Kenya blames the growth of urbanisation for the steady erosion of vernacular languages in the country.

He now advises parents to take upon themselves the responsibility of teaching their children their first language regardless of the place of their habitation saying this is the only safeguard against bringing up children who have no connection with their past.

Nyeri County Children’s Officer Kung’u Mwaniki says the need to safeguard our local dialects cannot be gainsaid and should be embraced by all and sundry.

He points out that mother tongue is not a lesser mode of communication compared with foreign languages and can thus be employed in any formal platform such as business forums, fintech, conferences among other areas.

“I would recommend the re-introduction of these languages in our schools but this is not enough since in the kind of homes we have parents communicate in English and Kiswahili and thus there will be a lot of detachment. In my view, it should be a concerted effort whereby it is taught in churches and also people given a chance to express themselves in offices in their local languages," he said.

“Broadcast and print media have a great role to play in order to prevent the vanishing of the mother tongue. Until people realise English is a colonial language, the local languages will continue to die,” he adds.

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