To Hell With Mother Tongue?

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“And at what point in their lives will their mother tongue come in handy?” she asked cynically. She spoke in her mother tongue. Ironically, the above translation to English does not begin to capture the true essence of the words she used.

Someone had asked her if she had already started teaching mother tongue to her one and a half year old. To which she gave the above reply. Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to say so much that you in fact end up saying nothing? That is what happened to me.

In her mind her children will grow up and learn other ‘useful’ languages. Languages that will come in handy like English. Maybe some French, German, Spanish. A bit of Italian perhaps? Mother tongue is pointless.

With the other languages, they will explore the world. Traverse the globe. They might even go ahead and live among the Germans, or the French. They will roll their tongues efficiently to whisper “Au revoir” to Mother Africa and her mother tongue. To hell with mother tongue, they don’t need it.

With that statement, she declared to everyone in the room that she is inferior. She frowned upon her identity and therein frowned upon herself. She denied her children an identity – with that one statement.

She assumed that the path she already drew up in her head was the very path her children would follow. That she will always be here to make sure that they don’t grow up and stray to veer off the beaten path. She would ensure that there doesn’t come a point in her children’s lives that they will need to use their mother tongue. That they will never interact with kin who only speak mother tongue, and feel shortchanged.

She is a young mother. And the problem with our generation of young mothers is that we are not so smart. Since we are not smart, we tend to pass our ‘not so smartness’ to our offspring. We are obsessed with trends. We are maniacs who wait to be told who we are, how to dress and what to eat. We are too timid to live our lives and so we end up living someone else’s life. We dread being unique, doing what has never been done, exploring the unexplored. We huddle up and undertake to be a replica of each other. Oh, she wears a long weave; I think I will get me a long weave too, is our mantra.

We want to be who we are not. Can a Kalenjin be more English than the English? Can a Kikuyu be more French than the French? But we will still try to be just a little bit French. Just a teeny bit English. If we can be allowed to forgo our mother tongue, we promise.

Why are we ready to forgo something so profoundly unique about us? Take this quote from Ishmael Beah for example “My mother tongue, Mende, is very expressive, very figurative, and when I write, I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things that I really want to say in Mende. For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say ‘Night came suddenly’; you would say, ‘The sky rolled over and changed its sides’” Tell me, how beautiful is that!

Is there anything worse than walking around the world without an identity? Not knowing who you really are? There is no greater travesty if you ask me.

At what point do you deem yourself so worthless? At what point do you consider yourself a second-rate human being who needs to emulate other cultures to feel worthy?

It is sad. I was irked by her sentiments that I wanted to call her to a corner, away from prying ears and tell her that what she just said was not only disturbing, but also the shallowest, stupidest statement I had heard in a long long time.

I wanted to educate her that the mother tongue is the language of heart and mind, as intimated by That when a person speaks their mother tongue, a direct connection establishes between heart, brain and tongue. That our personality, character, modesty, shyness, defects, our skills, and all other hidden characteristics become truly revealed through the mother tongue because the sound of the mother tongue in the ear and its meaning in the heart give us trust and confidence.

I wanted to quote Nelson Mandela, the same way the website did. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”

I wanted to scold her for shunning our mother tongue. For treating it with distaste like it was a plague she would like to rid her children from. I wanted to inform her that doing so only helped to alienate her brood.

I wanted to warn her that children, who are unaware of their language or culture for that matter, will lose confidence in themselves.

I wanted to rain on her with memories of our childhood. How stories were told to us in mother tongue. How those memories are priceless and can never be replicated anywhere in the world. How mother tongue connects us to our mother; the one constant, truest and strongest anchor of our lives. I wanted to look her in the face and ask, “How dare you?!” I wanted to slap her across the same face and ask her to end the stupidity. To end the self-loathing. To accept who she is. I wanted to shout at her to most of all, remember who she is.

“Our mother tongue is the language we use to think, dream and feel emotion,” Proverbio said. Why would you deny your children that?!” I wanted to yell.

I wanted to say so much but from the above, I am sure that you can tell that it wouldn’t have ended well. So I opted to blog about it instead. Hopefully, she will come across this article and read it. Or not. Whatever.


First published on the Storymoja Festival Blog



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