Indigenous Languages Are Fundamental to Development

By Dr Charles Mubita

This week Zimbabwe joined Ghana and Tanzania in revealing bold plans to remove English as a medium of instruction in schools. The change in language policy, particularly in Ghana and Tanzania, has been up for discussion for some time but has never been aggressively pursued.

The central message from these countries is that the time has come for Africans to change our mindset so that our education is administered in our local languages. The announcements by Ghana and Zimbabwe within the space of one week, elicited mixed reactions from home and abroad.

Many have questioned the wisdom of removing colonial languages as media of instruction in schools or as official languages. They argue that African languages do not have terms such as algorithms, trigonometry, convex geometry, quantum mechanics and other tongue twisters and jaw-breakers.

The critics fear that these sophistries will be lost in translation thereby lowering the standard of education. For them, English is the definition of education sophistry, the height of sophistication, and epitome of civilisation.

This negative reaction is informed by an erroneous assumption that English is the be-all and end-all of education – a false assumption that some successful non-Anglophones such as Russia, Germany, Japan, China, France, Finland, India, and many others will scoff at. Unfortunately, this debate only demonstrates how far we are from breaking out of the shell of imperialism and mental slavery.

The critics choose to be oblivious to the simplest of facts that the multi-disciplinary facility of the English language is not entirely self-generated but liberally imported from influences as diverse as Celtic, Latin, Hindi, Greek, Scandinavian, Hebrew, French and Arabic.

They also fail to ask simple questions as to why the Arabs used brute force, and still do in the name of religion, to spread their language and culture in Africa in the same manner as the English, the French and Portuguese did. Even latecomers in language slavery, China and Russia, award scholarships to Africans to study in Russian and Chinese languages, in exchange for “support”.

Western countries fought tooth and nail to rebut the imposition of Arab in their countries. Preserving and using a single indigenous language as the medium of instruction was a massive task for Korea, the Netherlands, India, China and others. It took many years, and above all, it took national pride and leadership to achieve. These countries, like African countries, have many tribes and dialects.

In fact, Asian giants such as Russia, South Korea, Japan and India have been exporting their technological acumen and creative products worldwide, with only negligible traces of the English language, partly because they have the kind of self-esteem required to be fully independent. Therefore, inventing excuses in defence of perpetuating colonial languages as media of instruction can only be entertained by a thoroughly brainwashed bunch of colonial apologists.

The problem with us Africans is that we prefer cheap answers in tackling complex issues, even those of decolonization. Some people cite globalization, many tribes, languages and dialects, lack of enough literature and books as excuses for not removing colonial languages from our schools as media of instruction. Obviously, the struggle to dislodge English and other colonial languages from the pedestal of medium of communication will not be easy. It requires leadership, time, resources and unshakable resolve. Adopting one national indigenous language as a medium of communication does not necessarily mean throwing away one’s native/tribal language and culture. It simply helps to break barriers, promote fraternity and diversity, increases interactions, trust and national cohesion.

Research has proved that when children and teachers use their mother tongue in schools, academic performance increases. Self-esteem and self-concept improve as well. Speaking a language of one’s oppressor, especially in a place in which one spends a very large portion of their early life that ought to be important to their development, has a deleterious effect on their self-concept.

What is clear, however, is that human personality changes with the acquisition of a foreign language. Research has proven that speech is an organism living in the minds of people. It is not only a tool for communication. Speech is not the same as language. Without the knowledge of any words, we are still able to express our feelings, send messages to the world outside our minds. Language is an art and speech is an abstract existence created by the nature to be used as an art of expression. Every being’s mind is different, so is every way of expression. Therefore, taking over another person’s way of expression, namely speech, changes one’s personality. Language is the principal means of socialisation. It is the primary mode of comprehending, contextualising and communicating reality; without it we can neither name nor distinguish what we perceive. It is one of the most determining signs of a nation because it characterizes common habitation and culture.

Fact is, a people using a colonial language, culture and identity is as “independent” as a tree grafted on another tree. English, French, Portuguese can remain second languages, not our first or official language. Amilcar Cabral once said cultural liberation must follow on the heels of political and economic independence. Failure to this, we will remain mentally colonized.
Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.