Culture supremacy struggle is psychologically imminent for the African man. The issue of penalizing school children because they speak their language within the school premises is overly unacceptable. Growing up, I had a similar experience and for your punishment, you pay a monetary fine which forms 99.99% of the class purse. Before we understood the actual meaning of the word ‘vernacular’, we had thought that the word depicted something awful, and if it is associated with the language that we fluently communicate with, then we need to drop it for a while, as hard as that may be. Teachers “don’t lie” so they must be right in their conclusive assumptions. In many African schools, you see signs such as: “SPEAK ENGLISH ALWAYS” or “NO VERNACULAR”. Malawian educational system is officially based on an English only policy; and in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa (amongst others), there have been reported cases of punishing students for speaking their mother tongue.
Once an African makes a comment in the media with improper pronunciation, it becomes a big deal; the former Nigerian first lady makes a grammatical mistake and it becomes a global comic item, footballers from non-English speaking countries make it obvious on international television that the English language is not exactly their strong suit, and “it’s okay” but an African of the same status does same and it becomes one of those default signs that we live with monkeys in a jungle. The surprising thing is that Africans themselves make more petty jokes of fellow Africans who are not that grounded in the English Language. Well, it is good to say that the English Language is not our biological/cultural language neither does it determine the level of anybody’s intelligence. But somehow the African education system is succeeding in erasing native languages from our cultural identification as Africans. These days you find Africans, especially children, resident in Africa who are fluent in English, French, Spanish, Dutch and even Chinese, but when you say ‘hello’ in the native language, he’s thrown off. Sapir-Whorf on this note believes that culture is shaped by one’s native language.
English language in itself is not the problem, neither is its learning in schools. The problem rather is that the western supremacy still runs in our veins. An English man can never ever be penalized anywhere in the world for showing off his identity whether grammatically wrong or not. Why then should a child be punished for the same in an indigenous African education system? Globalization is a double-edged sword, with its pros and cons. The African mentality about English is such that if you do not know your way around it, then you are apparently on a lower level.
An argument that springs up is that a 21st-century person is a global person and as such should be capable of identifying himself with the international community using the English Language which is fast becoming the ruling international language. The education system wants to produce students and future leaders who will not be intimidated in the international world because of their language. If we accept this reason, then there is actually no knowledge of cultural worth in the African man. Yes, there may be limitations- the international pressure to sound like everyone else and meet up to the western standard of verbal communication- but nothing can ever be as wrong as not feeling and being proud of who you are in all ramification. At least you have a root and did not fall from the sky. A second reason is the essence of the Lingua Franca of nations with numerous ethnic groups. The Lingua Franca is a language that aids communication amongst people of different languages within a country, an agent of peace and unity. Because of this common tendency in African countries, the imperialist language enjoys a high recognition. Nigeria, for instance, has hundreds of ethnic groups but we only know the three majority tribes. Of the least populous of them-Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba- the Igbo’s are fast losing grip of their language. Reason being evident in the societal stress on the national Lingua Franca, English. You can only imagine what will be happening to other tribal languages in the minority. As it is in Nigeria, so it is in several other African countries. Globalization is making our language perish. Worse than the confusion of originality (prompted by the trending faking of accents), is the shameful show of poor patriotism and low cultural confidence.
Penalizing children for speaking their mother tongue will only do a fantastic job in the continuous fading of our native languages. When you keep children from expressing themselves in the only language they have ever known, you are as guilty as robbing them of their rights to a voice and properly expressing themselves, that’s why it is hard for them to say “yes aunty/uncle” to the ‘no vernacular’ instruction and mean it; and then get punished for it. No foreign language gives in-depth meaning to your expressions than your native language but these days, the reverse is the case. If you finally succeed in subduing the vernacular verbal expressions, then know it that you have created a sense of limitation in the child’s psyche.
The child has this weird respect for his teacher, so when he/she says this is wrong, you just don’t want to tow that line because “my teacher said it’s wrong”. They see second parents and role models in their teachers. Considering the amount of time children spend in school in recent times, you will agree with me that it is their second home, and if they don’t feel free in their lingual identification there, then it will take just a little effort from a non-nonchalant parent to properly murder the life of the indigenous language in the children.
The irony in this whole drama is that an institution that should be building up literate students is inversely promoting the very opposite. The word ‘illiteracy’, means not able to read and write, and not the inability to read and write English. As long as they go to school speaking English, chances are they will have more interests in the English class than in any other local language class. It is bad enough some parents are not helping to sustain the indigenous language, the school which should build you up in areas where they are failing, now contributes in worsening the situation. When you teach about culture you include language as a medium for identity, why then do you punish students when they freely flaunt their identity? And at a tender age for that matter.
“Can you read and understand your physics textbook if it were written in your native language?” My teacher once asked us in class. The obvious answer was no, there was no way in the world, we could grab a thing if it were possible. Not because the indigenous language is incomplete or inefficient like western chauvinists want us to think but because we haven’t tried or rather because the style was not trending in the literary industry at the time. English seemed to be the ‘in thing’. There were even days you religiously study the dictionary because you “want to increase your vocabulary”. Posterity will be super grateful to literary giants like Ngugi Wa Thiongo who in response to the growing ill of punishing students for speaking vernacular, urged the Kenyan government to rather punish teachers who beat children for speaking their mother tongue. In addition to this advice, Ngugi, a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine, authored ‘Decolonizing the Mind’, a work that co-relates national culture and language from the anti-imperialist point of view. In this work, he addressed the issue and potency of promoting the indigenous language through literary works. As a matter of fact, Ngugi who is noted to have said, “the choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to the entire universe” (1986), has ceased writing in any other language but Gikuyu, his native language. He, however, does not condemn the English language but advocates for prioritization of the indigenous language.