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National languages critical in decolonising the mind

by Staff reporter
16 Jun 2022 at 08:23hrs | Views
President Mnangagwa yesterday officially opened the National Languages Conference in Victoria Falls.

Running under the theme: "Redefining the role of Zimbabwean languages for national development towards Vision 2030 and beyond," the conference seeks to define in detail the role and place of all officially recognised and not yet recognised indigenous languages in national development as well as the promotion, preservation and conservation of cultural heritage.

The conference comes at an opportune time when some sections of the country's population are sadly showing serious signs of historical amnesia by valorising colonial existence including sanitising the brutal rule of Ian Smith, the last Rhodesian leader.

Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, which are Tonga, Venda, Chewa, IsiNdebele, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Khoisan, Nambya, Ndau, Shangani, Xhosa, Sign Language, Tswana, Sesotho,  ChiShona and English.

The conference is expected to lead to the crafting of a roadmap for the finalisation of the Languages Bill, which will pave the way for the formulation of a clear-cut language policy for the country. The drafting of the National Languages Bill is meant to promote mother languages spoken in Zimbabwe and guarantee respect for the country's socio-cultural diversity.

Indeed, for a formerly colonised country like ours, the conference and its intended outcomes are critical in building a proud citizenry that identifies itself with its own languages as communication tools and as carriers of culture and history.

Colonialism was pervasive in the manner in which it undermined local languages which are carriers of culture and identity. The effect of colonialism on the social fabric was to annihilate a people's belief in their names, languages, environment, their heritage of struggle, their unity, their capacities and ultimately in themselves.

Embracing and promoting our own local languages is therefore more than an expression of one's pride. Prominent Kenyan author, Ngugi waThiongo, dedicated a whole book: Decolonising the Mind (1981) to illustrate the importance of national languages in people's existence.

In Decolonising the Mind Ngugi asserts that language is both a carrier of culture and a means of communication. And since language has this dual purpose, not embracing one's language has serious implications in that one can start identifying himself or herself with the cultural norms of an imposed foreign language. It's worse when the foreign language is the colonising language. The effect of uncritically embracing a foreign language is that some people will start seeing everything about their past as some kind of wasteland of non-achievement and makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary.

It even implants some doubt about the moral rightness of struggle with possibilities of triumph being viewed as remote. Resultantly, despair, despondency and collective inertia start creeping in as people begin to see everything about themselves as inferior.

For a once colonised people like ourselves, embracing our national languages is critical in that we need to continue working on liberating all facets of our wellbeing - our economy, politics and our cultures from Euro-American stranglehold to a new era of true self-regulation and self-determination.

The choice of a language and the use to which language is put is central to a people's definition of themselves in relation to their national and social environment and indeed in relation to their entire universe. While we accept that English has become the official language of business in Zimbabwe, we must not fall into the trap of seeing it as the official vehicle and magic formula to elitism or upward social mobility.

Since language is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture, caution must be taken in the use of a language like English whose history in Zimbabwe carries serious connotations as the language of the coloniser.

A good example is that while English is spoken in Britain and in Sweden and Denmark, in the latter two countries, it is only a means of communication with non-Scandinavians. It is not a carrier of culture.

However, it is a different situation in Britain where the language is the mother-tongue. In Britain, English is both a tool for communication and a carrier of their culture and history.

It therefore follows that in Zimbabwe we must strive to embrace and develop our national languages because they embody those moral, ethical and aesthetic values and what Ngugi refers to as "spiritual eyeglasses" through which we come to view ourselves and our place in the universe. In the words of Ngugi, values are the basis of a people's identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. All this is carried by language.

In other words, language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language is thus indistinguishable and inseparable from "ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world."

The effects of colonial conquests through language differ from one individual to the other. However, recent manifestations in some opposition members who are glorifying a colonial brutal dictator like Smith clearly calls for some urgent action to be taken in our education system to prevent the future from dying in the present.

We all know that the aim of colonialism was to control the people's wealth, what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed.

Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquests and subsequent political dictatorship. The most critical area of domination was however the mental aspect of the colonised and instilled some confusion in how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.

We are hopeful that participants at the conference in Victoria Falls will take cognisant of the fact that economic and political control can never be complete without mental control. This is what colonialism did to us as a people. When one controls a people's culture, they control their tools of self-definition in relation to others. The time has come to decolonise our minds and embrace our languages for national development and cohesion.

Source - The Chronicle