On Language and Knowledge

Tales by Moonlight by Wale Adeoye

Nne kedu? I enquired after the well being of the 8 year old girl with whose mother, I stood exchanging pleasantries. She smiled and looked away, while her mother proudly responded on her behalf, “she doesn’t understand Igbo; you know children of nowadays and how they are.” My heart sank; “children, or parents of nowadays” I almost blurted out, but my voice of upbringing prevailed. A week earlier, an acquaintance had called from Nigeria and in the midst of what I thought was an interesting conversation in my dialect interjected; “so after all these years of studying abroad, your Igbo is still so intact – that is so disappointing” I was shocked into silence. Perhaps, thinking my silence to be one of shame, he continued – “and you don’t even speak with an American accent, what then can you say to have achieved in your sojourn.” Like Wole Soyinka responded to the White landlady in the Telephone Conversation, I hope the response I gave to him was apt enough, and deserving of his inferiority complex ridden comment.

 All over the continent, African languages are fast assuming antiquated status. Speaking one’s language is becoming synonymous with the lower and uneducated class. As language is the major identity of a people, the implication of this denigration of indigenous languages for Africa is severe. According to literary giant Ngugi Wa Thiongo in his 2003 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, the self consciousness of any society is sited in the collective memory of a people which is situated in their language of communication. Professor Wa Thiong’o cites the example of the renaming exercise by the colonial powers, such as the great East African lake known to the Luo natives as Namlolwe, being changed to Lake Victoria, the native name Ngugi becomes James and Noliwe becomes Margaret.

Most people who grew up in sub-Saharan Africa would relate with professor Wa Thiongo’s narrative of what transpired in his days of growing up in rural Kenya. Growing up, professor Wa Thiongo spoke his mother tongue Gikuyu, at home and in the fields, but, after he went to school, his language of education ceased to be the language of his culture and thoughts. The child who was caught speaking his heart language, Gikuyu within the school premises was given corporal punishment or fined money. Those who spoke English were admired as the intelligent ones. English, according to Wa Thiong’o, ‘became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of the formal education.’ The self-loathing this act would foster in the child can only be imagined as he looses respect for himself, his parents who cannot speak English and his culture and people.

Wa Thiongo rightly posits that this colonial action was deliberately aimed at the devaluation of not just the African language, but the culture it embodies, such as ‘art, dances, religion, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language and culture of the colonized’. By so doing, European language, memory and culture were superimposed on the minds of Africans. Language is directly connected to consciousness and memory, therefore, the imposition of foreign languages and the culture it embodies, formed the fundamental aspect of European colonization. In Black Man, White Masks, Franz Fanon argues that in Africa, colonialism influenced the culture so strongly that even after the ceremonial handover of power, the culture never remained the same afterwards and continues to tilt towards dependency on Euro-centric persuasions.

Mother-tongue, indigenous or heart language is the language of spontaneity, the language of invention and creativity. Bill Gates who dropped out of school was able to build the Microsoft empire, a feat almost practically impossible in Africa, where tertiary education and the mastery of the colonial languages are synonymous with success. In China and other successful economies of East Asia, indigenous languages are promoted alongside other international languages making all members of the society to have a sense of belonging. This also preserves the local knowledge that would have been lost in attempts at translation. Africa, however, is yet to recover from the western imperial powers’ forceful subjection of the continent and the people to its (Western) memory, through imposition of the colonial language.

In Decolonizing the Mind, Wa Thiong’o notes that the erosion of cultural pride makes Africans want to identify with other people’s languages rather than their own. Eminent African intellectual professor Ali Mazrui identifies culture as the premise upon which all development efforts and societal progress or achievements are rooted and adjudged. Culture is central to a society’s progress, and if language is the major vehicle of culture, it implies that language as Wa Thiong’o argues, is important in shaping the consciousness of the individuals that make up society. Cultural imperialism is the worst form of imperialism since it effectively destroys the memory, values and unique consciousness of the colonized, and forces an alien memory over him. Interdependency is one of the fundamental laws of nature.

Biologists and environmentalists are more and more clamoring for the preservation of the species and the promotion of biodiversity. In global relations, promotion of language and cultural diversity is pertinent. Knowledge stored in one language will be entirely lost if it is not preserved intact. Increasingly, Euro-America pharmacologists and pharmaceutical companies are pitching tent with indigenous communities of Africa and the Amazon, in order to observe the curative properties of their indigenous herbal knowledge. Also, indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the Gacaca system in Rwanda or such traditional agricultural production techniques like the Zai in Niger, have both formed the basis of much study by Western researchers. Those would have been lost to the world today, had the countries not preserved the knowledge. China and most of East Asia are renowned for so many things today because they have preserved their language, culture, and indigenous knowledge.

While the diversity of Africa in terms of linguistic division cannot be overlooked, it must be looked upon as advantageous, although we have been made to believe that it is disadvantageous. A cluster of several knowledge systems in one single landmass should only translate to increased creativity and innovation, of an unprecedented proportion.  The challenge should be the development of an adequate language policy that will preserve these languages and at the same time keep our people globally competitive by not neglecting emerging realities in world affairs.

PS: An interesting article on how speaking several languages can help ward off diseases: http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/22/why-speaking-more-than-one-language-may-delay-alzheimers/

 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/02/100218-bilingual-brains-alzheimers-dementia-science-aging/ It has also been proven that the more languages you know or learn to speak, the higher your IQ. Africans, what are we doing to ourselves?

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