On the power of language

‘Language exerts hidden power.” What exactly did US writer Rita Mae Brown have in mind when she uttered these words? We may never know but below is how I have subjectively configured them.

Since the beginning of history, all peoples of the world had their languages through which they communicated — among themselves, with their ancestors and with the creator — for their own survival. Language has proven to be a medium of communication but also instrumental in connecting people with their spirituality or sense of being.

However, over time we have come to know that human life changes as it is exposed to multiple other systems in the universe. While some changes are good, some ought to be resisted.
More than a century ago, Victorian English enjoyed dominance that eventually diminished, given the evolution of the English community in Britain over the same epoch. Nonetheless, to date and for the foreseeable future, the English people will continue to enjoy English as their only language of communication.

Throughout the colonial era, this language, for example, was used as a tool to subjugate most peoples of what would later be known as the “third world”. Other European nations also played their role in the oppression of the weaker nations to impose their cultures and languages on them. To this day, the patent legacy of colonialism, other than poverty and underdevelopment, is the hegemony of the language of the colonisers among their former colonies.

Consequently, the African continent is largely divided according to languages of its former colonisers, into the Anglophone and Francophone nations. After the colonial era, most democratically elected African governments have struggled to reverse the gradual demise of the indigenous languages of their people. A case in point is the Khoe languages that are almost extinct, the result of years of disenfranchisement. As things stand, the rest of the African indigenous languages could be destined for the same trajectory.

In South Africa, September is a month designated for the celebration of cultural heritage, in which language also plays a pivotal role. It is fair to acknowledge that, legislatively, there are 12 official languages but the supremacy of English is evident, from highway signposts, and religious institutions and boardrooms to institutions of education, and the stock exchange.

In essence, the official status of other languages may at best be viewed as tokenistic — a pretence to give the appearance of fairness. We merely celebrate the coexistence of cultures and — by extension, languages — without substance.

Undoubtedly, this is the legacy of centuries of colonisation, which is nonetheless, reversible through an adequate dose of political will, as is the case in Tanzania. Furthermore, Vietnam, a former French colony for more than 60 years, and Indonesia and Malaysia — former Dutch and British colonies, respectively, for more than 300 years — resisted the languages of their colonisers in favour of their indigenous languages.

These few cases are an exception, as it seems there is comfort in the status quo in other former colonies. Sometimes the situation is so dire that someone who is not articulate in the English language is reflexively scorned by their peers. At other times, it seems we live to prove to ourselves that we can outdo the English people in their own language.

Indeed, as Tacitus wrote almost two millennia ago: “The language of the conqueror in the mouth of the conquered is ever the language of the slave.” This truth is palpable, especially in light of the underdevelopment and backwardness experienced by all peoples who still glorify the language of their former oppressors.

Could it be coincidental that peoples from all leading economies of the world use their indigenous languages? Conversely, Africans are the only people who outrightly use nonindigenous languages, yet hope that meaningful development will come their way. This includes even in sacred places, where we are meant to speak to the higher being.

Vernacular-based radio and TV channels are no exception. Those with the slightest inclination toward their indigenous languages hardly finish a single sentence without adding one or two English words as if there were no replacements in their vernacular. This is now a common occurrence and does not invite condemnation.

In the process, we lose our sense of being, as we unnecessarily are consumed by cultures of former colonisers. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that we are marred by so many psycho-socioeconomic quandaries and perhaps even destined to forever play a catchup game with the rest of the progressive world.

In classrooms, the majority of children are faced with a situation in which they think in their indigenous languages and spend a couple of seconds, if not minutes, translating it in their minds into the dominant classroom language, which is usually their second or third language.

The reverse is true as well: when they receive the instruction in the second or third language, they spend some time processing it in their language for clarity, and a couple of seconds thinking about how to respond.

Many can attest that the same process plays out in the boardrooms as well, hence delayed participation — or lack of participation at all — in critical conversations by second or third English language speakers. This is by no means indicative of one’s mental aptitude to contribute but should be seen as a structural impediment that systematically eliminates people — particularly the black child — from participation and development.

The world is entering into the much hyped fourth industrial revolution (4IR). There is no way that a black child can be on par if the touted revolution is communicated primarily in their second or third languages. Some analysts have suggested that the era for invention has elapsed and that all that is left for the aspirant innovators is modification of the existing technologies.

This cannot be correct. Meaningful participation in the 4IR should be second to breathing for all children but only if invited to think, understand and talk in their indigenous, everyday languages. In this way, ingenuity should come naturally because being in charge of the medium of communication enables one to be in charge of what to think and how to think. As Nelson Mandela put it: “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.”

Thus, the upwards trajectory of Africa and her people lies in valuing and being in charge of that which rightfully defines us, through which we can also contribute to the global world. While socioeconomic development may not be attributed exclusively to language, the latter certainly plays a significant role to the former, and this symbiosis needs serious attention if Africa is to be counted among the best.

Dr Mpumelelo Ncube is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and writes in his personal capacity

​Mpumelelo Ncube

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