What is in a language?

I am intelligent, well; I’d like to think that I am intelligent. But I am not intelligent because this piece is written in English, I am not intelligent because of the accent I have. I am intelligent because I have realised what exactly is in a language. This is not a loaded question, it is not one that people should ponder on for too long but it is one that should be answered in its totality.

The purpose of languages is to ensure that people understand what you’re saying; it is a form of communication. The problem arises when we try to complicate languages which usually make us sound pompous and hubristic. We unknowingly portray ourselves as ostentatious as a means to be deemed intelligent by society. Yet the people who our messages are for, are frantically flipping through dictionaries in order to understand what we’re saying. We have become so colonised that we believe the only way we can succeed is if we can read, write and speak perfect English. We believe that English is the standard and we have never been this misinformed.

I had an encounter while participating in a community engagement programme, Upstart. We had asked the learners to partake in a descriptive writing exercise where they had to describe three pictures in three short paragraphs. We divided the learners into different groups and worked with them individually. The two learners I had worked with did not understand the instructions, not because they aren’t intelligent, not because they are ‘slow-learners’ but simply because the instructions had not been given in their mother tongue. I asked them which language they preferred to speak in and they said Afrikaans. Needless to say, they completed the exercise effortlessly in their mother tongues. The problems with this case is the assumption that everyone we cross paths with understand and are fluent in English. We disregard other languages while teaching. We assume that they only way to convey a message to a group of people, without even knowing their background,  is to do so in English.

The Constitution itself recognises the importance of languages and states that practical measures need to take place in order to promote the usage of the 11 official languages. It states that not only should we promote and create spaces for these languages but that we should respect the languages as well.

This is but one of the many encounters I have had where I am left reflecting on why I assume that everyone should speak English, on how I am contributing to this false notion that speaking English is a sign of intelligence and an inability to first ask people what language they are most comfortable with.

Our mouths are diverse because there are so many languages dwelling in them yet the spaces we occupy are preventing us from being understood, from learning and from growing. It is imperative that languages are utilised as a means to educate people and not to belittle them.

What is in a language is that it can cross boundaries, that it is created for us to effectively understand each other , that it is so rich in history, that we can acquire any language we want to. What is in a language is the beauty of speaking to people and not only having them hear you but understand you as well.

A Nigerian writer and intellectual, Kole Omotoso, said, “We may speak English at the free market bazaar, but our moral choices and the trials of our daily existence- birth, death, worship, celebration- are locked up in our mother tongues.” The beauty of this is that we have the keys to unlock our mother tongues at our leisure, that we have the power to ensure that the languages dwelling in our mouths can make our mouths Home.

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