Cultural shame of speaking our languages – in Africa and the diaspora

I was recently reading a work by Ngugi wa Thiong’o – Decolonizing the Mind: the politics of language in African Literature, an account written in 1986 as part of a collection of essays. In this particular essay, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the award winning renowned Kenyan writer and academic explored how the colonization of Kenya by the British used the classroom setting as a way to psychologically control the masses. This approach was replicated in many other places in Africa and other parts of the world where the subjugation of Indigenous people not only utilized ‘guns, germs and steel’ but also institutions of learning. Dr. Kilemi Mwiria, a Kenyan Scholar referred to this as “education for subordination” whereby colonialists established education systems that would aid in their domination of Africans economically and politically.

In the essay, wa Thiong’o recounted his experiences as a young boy learning in ‘British Africa’. The first 4 years of his school were in Kikuyu or Gikuyu, one of Kenya’s Bantu languages. After a State of Emergency was declared in 1952, all schools run by the patriotic nationalists were taken over by the colonial regime and run by ‘Englishmen’. He explained that then “English became more than a language. It was the language, and all others had to bow down before it in deference”. Being caught speaking a language other than English resulted in corporal punishment and being forced to carry a metal plate around one’s neck saying “I am donkey” or “I am stupid”.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

For colonization to be successful beyond economic and political control through military conquest, it also required mental control. The colonizers accomplished this not only by undervaluing Africans and other Indigenous people’s languages but also our culture, art, religion and spirituality, dances, history etc.

On the Continent Today

The use of punishments and humiliation to deter African children from speaking their own languages perpetuated cultural shame that still lingers on today in neocolonial Africa. It’s unfortunate that even today, there are many instances where children are discouraged from speaking their own languages to the extent of being punished for speaking them at school. The extremely sad part is that it’s no longer the ‘Englishmen’ policing African children but our own African teachers and parents who discourage children from speaking their own languages. I have heard accounts in Kenya where certain schools do not allow children to speak Kiswahili or any other local language. Some parents – especially among the middle class and elite – have a sense of pride over their children not being proficient in their own languages.

Source : Orijinculture

The internalization of colonial and neocolonial attitudes towards African languages has led us to self-regulate ourselves to fit colonial standards with those not fitting the standards being excluded. The internalized cultural shame passed down generations goes beyond speaking our languages. We continue to under value many other aspects of being African – we undervalue our skin, our looks, our knowledge, our innovation, and our skills and ultimately we lack belief in ourselves. We continue to fail to examine some of our thoughts and actions, thus failing to rid ourselves of such practices that stem from colonialism – practices that were meant to harm and destroy us.

“Dem a bleach out dem skin” – compassion for ‘dem’ who bleach their skin

It is estimated that there are over 2000 different languages spoken in Africa, presenting a rich cultural diversity to be proud of, yet people are taught to be ashamed of speaking their mother tongues. Some people who deter children from speaking their own language use the argument that becoming multilingual is difficult and that the focus should be on learning English as it is a global language and the main language of business. However, many African children learn two or more languages before they start attending school and are able to use the languages interchangeably at the same time– a concept known as translanguaging.

Some education systems across Africa are beginning to see the importance of children learning and keeping their first languages.  Schools are beginning to integrate local languages in the curriculum with some places teaching entirely in local languages. This reawakening presents a glimmer of hope.

African Diaspora – Is there value in teaching our children our languages?

There have been mixed attitudes from Africans living in the diaspora teaching their children their language. There are some who don’t see any value in their children speaking their home language and argue that is unnecessary to learn languages not spoken here. However, wa Thiong’o writes that language has dual character – as a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Beyond culture and cultural identity, which stands as a value in learning our languages, there are also additional linguistic, social and cognitive benefits of being multilingual that have been proven among children and adults.

For the most part, many people I have met in the diaspora are keen on teaching their children their languages. They actively attempt different ways of exposing their children to their languages – from speaking the language entirely at home, group lessons, tutors, books, trips back home and encouraging their kids to interact with family members and people from similar backgrounds. They value the cultural significance of language and see it as a way for their children to remain connected to their roots and identity.

However, it doesn’t always come easy and it requires a lot of effort. The limited exposure to home languages is met with pressures of assimilation to western society, coupled with racism, discrimination and overall being shamed for speaking their home languages. Thus, it’s not surprising that statistics from researchers studying trends of languages spoken among immigrants especially in the US point a bleak picture. Studies found that immigrants lose their home language over one or two generations and end up speaking English only, with hundreds of languages rarely being passed on to the third generation.

Language at the Center of Decolonization

Thiong’o argues that language is at the center of decolonization –in that learning our own languages empowers us. I believe this is true as it allows us to take back our power – to live freely without seeking validation from the standards of eurocentrism.  We need to unlearn practices that devalue us and pass on these important ideologies around language to our children – both on the continent and in the diaspora. At the end of the day, we can learn very many languages without shunning our own. 

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