Speak, Africa speak

Map of Africa

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”
– Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1967).

Africans in the continent and the Diaspora must halt the steady slide of African languages into the dark abyss.

Reports from Africa and African communities abroad indicate that parents are forcing a strict diet of English language down the throats of helpless babies and toddlers. The situation is particularly alarming in Africa as children in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; and several other big cities in Africa, are growing up without even a basic understanding of their native language. And instead of seeing the development as a monumental tragedy for which it is, some parents now consider it a thing of pride that their children speak good English but not a word of their native language. This is especially sad for children born and raised in Africa.

In the Diaspora, some African parents, eager to see their children blend into the society we now call home, have ceased speaking the native language to their children at home. They assume, albeit erroneously, like their counterparts in Africa that speaking the native language to the children or allowing them to learn or speak the language, will adversely impact the children’s ability to speak English fluently. And there are others who simply consider their native languages totally worthless and unbefitting to bequeath to the coming generation.

These fears and self-loathing are misguided, to say the least.

Renowned language development scholar, Jim Cummings in a 1989 study found that “there is a strong and positive correlation between literacy in the native language and learning English.” Not only have Cummings and other notable researchers found that encouraging children to learn and speak their native language does not adversely affect their ability to learn other languages, but also, the western society which we are so eager to have our children fit into values bilingual skills.

In 1998, former Secretary of Education Richard Riley urged Americans to think of the many advantages; economic, cultural and political that fluency in two languages could give the American people. “America’s message of democracy, human rights and economic freedom would surely reach a wider audience,” said Riley.
Similarly, participants in a PBS program, Let’s talk about it: Fostering the development of language skills and emergent literacy, “advised immigrants whose first language is not English not to give up speaking their native languages just because they want to speak English.”

According to Standards for the English language Arts, a 1996 publication by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, “students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.”
Scientific evidence and professional opinions aside, even the burgeoning African movie industry gets it as evidenced in the feature film, Ede Mi (My Language) with its haunting message that forbidding or discouraging your children from learning your native language may prove not just costly, but also fatal.

Before ignorance morphs into fatality, we need to have a re-think and realize that, there is nothing worthy of pride for an African to say her children, born and raised in Africa, neither speak nor understand her native language. It is simply shameful. Worldwide, speaking more than one language is considered an asset.

For all you know, the Kimbudu language that you forbid your child from learning today; the Fulfude, Madingo, Yoruba or Akan language that you ignorantly sweep under the carpet now; may be the key to your precious child’s dream career at any of the choice global organizations. Or even save you or your child’s life.

When one-year old African babies now babble in English and two/three-year-olds open their mouths, and the first distinct words heard from those living in Africa especially, bear no semblance to their parents’ language, we need to worry. We have to shelve our favorite refrains of hakuna matata (in southern/eastern Africa) and no wahala (in western Africa) for something commensurate with the seriousness and gravity of the problem at hand.

If we don’t want our children to end up floundering in aggravating haze of identity crisis; if we don’t want Africa’s future generation to end up “dislocated and separated,” and constantly embroiled in a battle against itself like the infamous Antilles Negro in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; African parents at home and abroad, must start speaking their native languages to their children.

It is not too late. Start from the basics: From the alphabets to common phrases for “Good morning;” “How are you?” “What is your name?” etc. And if your schedule does not permit that, enroll the children in your native language classes. Even if you don’t appreciate it, the world will thank you for it.

Governments across Africa should not only come up with educational policies, as some had done in the past, but also, actually enforce the policies which will mandate the teaching of indigenous language as compulsory subject for at least the first six years of elementary education. A public service announcement in the media to encourage parents to speak the language to their children at home can also help.

African languages are heading for extinction, but if we conscientiously and gallantly stand in the gap, especially for the coming generations, we can still stem the billowing tide. Individually and collectively, we can raise an enduring standard against this flood threatening to sweep us all into silence.