13 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Mother Languages and Identity


DO Zimbabweans look down on their mother languages? If that is the case, can we then say that we are facing an identity crisis? What do you call yourself if you cannot write and speak your own mother language? What is your major language of communication at home and in other spheres? If your mother tongue plays second fiddle, is it progressive or it is retrogressive?

Before the brickbats are hurled at me, think carefully and answer the questions and then revisit some of the most recent statistics we have on the state of our mother languages - not just Shona and Ndebele.

One of the highlights of the draft constitution that was recently passed by Parliament is that 16 languages in Zimbabwe will be recognised as official languages?

For argument's sake, I will use Wikipedia's definition of official language since it is inclusive: "An official language is a language that is given a special legal status in a particular country, state, or other jurisdiction. Typically a country's official language refers to the language used within its government - its courts, parliament, administration and so on - to run its operations and conduct its business. Since "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law", the term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government".

Which would mean that if the draft constitution is adopted by the people, these 16 languages, among them Shona, Ndebele, Kalanga, Shangaan, Tonga, Venda, Nambya, Tswana will be used by Government and its various arms - the courts, parliament, administration, etc.

This is quite a task considering that with the exception of English, which has enjoyed the official language status for more than a century, the implementation of such a legal framework for other languages will not be as easy as it sounds on paper.

At face value, it sounds very easy and doable to achieve such an enviable task, but when we see a majority of meetings around the country addressed in English, how will the language section be implemented?

This statement is not different from what Christians wanted - that the constitution clearly spells out that Zimbabwe is a Christian country.

Which brings me to the second set of statistics, which have a bearing on the draft constitution's recommendations: the 2012 Ordinary Level results. According to figures given by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council director Mr Esau Nhandara, "For the bottom three subjects we recorded 20.19 percent for English Language, 18 percent for Shona . . . " Interestingly Ndebele had an overall pass rate of 53,7 percent.

It is unfair to analyse these figures without looking at the pass and/or failure rates in these languages over a long period of time.

But let me make my arguments as someone who studied and taught languages (Shona and English); someone who remembers the cynical comments often made by colleagues and the market place: "Studying Shona at university level, what for? What will you do with Shona?" This demoralised us then, and I would not think that it is any different today.

Even Paul Matavire's hit song "MaU, Ungraded" has that tinge of looking down on Shona. As Western lifestyles become more preferred than our traditional lifestyles, you also realise Zimbabwean parents wanting to ensure that their children start speaking English at a very age.

This means that in the 16-language pool, English emerges the winner. Various arguments are proffered, but the bottom-line is that most people believe that there is no economic value in speaking and/or studying mother languages like Shona.

This perception has also changed the language of communication in most homes and I am posing the argument that Jean Aitchison makes in her book, "Language change: Progress or decay?"

Aitchison says, "English used to be a language which foreigners couldn't pronounce but could often understand. Today it is rapidly becoming a language, which the English can't pronounce and few foreigners can understand. Another commentator declared angry that 'through sheer laziness and sloppiness of mind, we are in danger of losing our past subjunctive'.

It feels the same with our mother languages. I find it inconceivable that someone cannot write in their own mother tongue, but are happy to tell the world that they can speak and write English, a second language.

After investing years of study and analysis, it is only fair to say that studying Shona never inhibited me from pursuing my dreams.

Reading and critiquing more than 120 Shona novels gave me that competitive edge. It made me understand Zimbabweans as a people then, now and into the future and how they had to redefine their identity after colonialism.

There is no way I can boast about reading a number of English books on various subjects without also looking at how many Shona books I am reading.

When we did that (at school and college), we also had to know who the first Shona writers were and what made them want to write in Shona, wehen options for them to write in English were available.

Getting into the minds of great writers such Solomon Mutswairo, Bernard Chidzero, Herbert Chitepo, Patrick Chakaipa, Joseph Kumbirai, Thompson Tsodzo, Mordecai Hamutyinei, Emmanuel Ribeiro, Charles Mungoshi, Ignatius Zvarevashe, Paul Chidyausiku, Charles Makari, Aaron Hodza and more is a memorable journey.

The issues they tackle sometimes simplistically, and in some cases in a complex manner reveal the stream of thought prevalent during their time.

Through such studies, we observed that women entered the writing fray very late: Stella Mandebvu with "Ndochema nani?" which was published in 1974; and, Shuvai Mukonoweshuro with "Ndakakutadzirei" published in 1979.

These writers have also filled the gap in the historical narrative that we sometimes feel is missing, and the history of this country would be incomplete without the contribution made by authors who write in our mother tongues, including textbooks.

However, one of the most fulfilling aspects of studying Shona is that apart from using it as a language of communication, I am able to successfully apply it in the marketplace, thanks to information systems specialist guru, Paul A. Strassmann who made me understand the hidden element when he lamented about the lack of linguists in his home country the United States. His argument was that the information age requires linguists with the requisite skills and knowledge to decode and interpret messages.

Messages are transmitted through language forms. This is why the recommendation in the draft constitution cannot be taken lightly.

Thus, linguistics is not a subject that should only lend someone a teaching job as we were made to believe. Zimbabwe's marketplace, be it mining, agriculture, banking, tourism, ICTs requires linguists in these 16 languages.

The information society we are entering requires people with skills to decipher meanings not only in the 16 languages, but others as well.

Let us take this opportunity to get back to basics and use our mother languages to build our social, cultural, political, economic, military intelligence platforms, and still manage to compete with the rest of the world.

If our languages are not as important as some of us want to make them, why is it that when companies are conducting mineral explorations for example, they have to understand the dos and don'ts of the area? In most cases, those dos and don'ts are expressed through language.

Shona, Ndebele, Kalanga, Shangaan, Tonga, Venda, Nambya, Tswana and others all have economic and cultural values that need to be tapped into.

Apart from the political will, the people, who are the custodians of these languages need to realise that speaking and writing fluent English when you cannot do the same with your mother tongue is pronouncing a death sentence on yourselves. We should either define our identity through these God-given languages or allow others to define us.

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