Should children maintain their native language?

To speak, or not to speak?

There is a widely held view or belief that children should learn to speak their native language. By native language, I mean the mother tongue or the language of one’s ethnic group. This view is supported by the notion that native languages promote diversity, help children understand their heritage and create a sense of identity.

Fortunately (or should I say ‘unfortunately,’ seeing I am not equipped to make a fair assessment), I do not know how the inability to speak my native language feels like, or whether it would depreciate my sense of identity. Also, I imagine I could equally understand my heritage even if the knowledge was transmitted to me in another language. As I write this, it occurs to me that most of what I have learnt about the history of my country, I did in English.

I am therefore in no position to argue that maintaining a native language is the absolute right thing to do. In the same way, I am not suggesting that it is of no value or importance, neither I am suggesting everyone should do it. There are, however, a lot of interesting aspects regarding the speaking of native languages. These I’m sure I could, just as well as anybody, talk about.

When the case for native languages is less compelling

In Zimbabwean schools, children are taught all courses in English and as a result, become more proficient in that language, while indigenous languages suffer. As demands are placed on children to perform well, parents are sometimes under pressure to ensure that the children have a good grasp of the English language. They go on to encourage the use of English and do very little to nurture the mother tongue.

Often times in our schools, there is a devaluation of the mother tongue and associated culture. A lack of fluency in the English language is met with ridicule from peers and children lack prestige in indigenous languages and culture.

Parents realise that it is better for their children to be more proficient in a language that is essential in securing a bright future. This makes our indigenous languages unviable. Even when communicating for business or with people of other nationalities all over the world, any native minority language becomes irrelevant.

Given all this, there obviously remains very little to motivate children to use native languages.

What’s a language for, if not to communicate?

Consider children of immigrants, living in a community in which the native language is confined to the home. Then imagine that inside the home, everyone is proficient in the dominant language of the country of residence; the language which the children use in school and for communicating with the wider society. Clearly, communication is not inhibited. Not with family nor with the wider society.

As long as communication is possible, there is no natural urge to master the native language. Also, because language is best learnt by using it in real life, the opportunity to learn is not presented.

With children from immigrant families, sometimes eagerness to assimilate into the dominant culture also contributes to loss of the native language.

Some environments hardly promote the maintenance of native languages

A good number of Zimbabweans generally hold English in high regard because of its importance in attaining good grades and so on. Some, as a result, consider it superior to all the other fifteen officially recognised languages of Zimbabwe.

It is not unusual to find parents who deliberately avoid exposing their children to our indigenous languages. Once, I encountered a parent who was interested in ensuring that her child did not sit for a national Shona exam. This despite the fact that the child still had a whole year to prepare. Understandably, to such a parent there is no value in proficiency in indigenous languages.

Sometimes family and other members of the community inadvertently discourage children from learning the native language. Mistakes in speech or reading are met with correction, ridicule and laughter. This ends up discouraging children who genuinely struggle to grasp the language.

When languages die

As successive generations become more proficient in the ‘superior’ language, the native language will die. I imagine that this is slowly happening to our indigenous languages. With a general lack of interest in indigenous language literature worsened by a decline in reading culture, there seems to be little motivation for writing in indigenous languages. We risk losing the ability to preserve our languages through literature.

I recently learnt that some languages die because of natural disasters which wipe out communities of speakers.  One example given is the case in which certain communities in El Salvador abandoned their languages to avoid being identified as Indians. This was after a massacre in 1932 in which Salvadoran troops killed tens of thousands of mostly indigenous peasants in order to suppress an uprising. (See britannica.com)

Why maintain native languages?

The year 2019 was declared the Year of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations. Speaking at an event held in New York last year, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande- President of the United Nations General Assembly, highlighted how the death of indigenous languages poses a threat to the survival of indigenous traditions. These are a “dependable means of acquiring knowledge” which can be transmitted across generations. He gave examples of herbal medicine, food processing and settling disputes within communities, as valuable bodies of knowledge. 

Sometimes, children desire proficiency in the native language so that they are able to communicate with family members and interact effectively with their peers. For others, the ability to speak a language is a way of identifying with a certain culture or group of people.

There are many like me, who fantasize about the ability to speak more than two languages. I met a man once who remarked, ‘You are poor my friend,’ after I told him I could speak only one of the indigenous languages spoken in Zimbabwe.

You could learn about a culture in a language not spoken by its people. However, learning in the language of the culture creates a more intimate experience. The ability to speak more languages also creates an opportunity to expand one’s social sphere.

But is it just a language? When you lose your first language, do you not lose your authenticity, your ability to fully express yourself and just the comfort of being in your own skin? When we all lose, what does the nation gain?

It is not surprising that the loss of a native language usually comes with a loss of acceptable cultural and family values.

When children show interest in learning their native language, I believe the best a parent can do is facilitate as much possible. This can be done by using the language within the home and exposing the child to social settings associated with its use. Language is best learnt in real-life scenarios than in the classroom.

I do not believe, a child’s ability to grasp the dominant language (English in our case) would be compromised if it wasn’t used in the home. Children are already exposed to so much of it in school – both inside and outside of the classroom. Considering the amount of time they spend in school, that’s a fair amount of exposure. Even within the home itself, children can exceptionally master the dominant language through television.

So should children maintain their native language? I will let you have the last word.

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