Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Siyanda Mohutsiwa

Language survival, some harsh truths

The definition of a dying language is not a complicated matter. It is not even a semi-complicated matter. But it is certainly quite a sensitive matter for many middle-class Africans living in the era of globalisation and neo-colonialism. It is threatening what many consider their “African identity” so intimately there appears to be no escape.

Many of these Africans, children of former colonies, find themselves living in constant fear that their native tongue — whether it is spoken by millions of people or not — is mere decades away from extinction. They look at their children, nieces, nephews, siblings rambling away in rapid (insert colonial language) and sigh theatrically while staring into the distance outside their windows.

If it seems as if I’m being melodramatic; that is because I am trying to paint a picture of exactly what it is I imagine when I hear people complain about the “rapid decline” of (insert Bantu language).

Between you and me, I often find myself gripped by a cynicism so sharp, it forces me to burst out in laughter. It may appear that I am mocking this inherent fear of loss of cultural identity (for I suspect that this is the real issue here) that comes with rapid class ascent, but I’m merely trying to make a point.

Before I get to it, I’d like to give you some technical definitions of a dying language. An “endangered language” — as the linguists say — is a language whose speakers are rapidly dying out or are shifting to speaking a new one altogether. A language is said to be “dead” if there is only one person that can speak it, and “extinct” when there are none.

According to Unesco, there are even several levels of language death — a language is “vulnerable” when children do not speak it outside of the home, “definitely endangered’ when children do not speak it at all, “severely endangered” when it is only spoken by the oldest generation, and so on and so forth.

These are the stages of language death. I bring this up because these definitions are supposed to do for you what they did for me: put things in perspective and force everyone to calm the (expletive) down. As long as your language has a considerable number of speakers that use it to communicate 99% of their thoughts, your language still has at least another century in it. As long as there are entire villages and communities where not a word of (insert colonial language) is spoken, your language is pretty safe.

What I’m saying is: we cannot be frightened by the middle-class families whose children look down upon their languages with disdain and cry “death!” to our languages. Middle-class Africans do not make up a sufficiently large enough part of the population to guarantee that their five private school children not knowing their language ensures its death. We have to start being realistic. This means that it is imperative we climb off the high horse of middle-class self-importance that makes us believe we accurately represent the complex web of African realities that can be found in our communities.

But simultaneously, I cannot shake off these fears as silly and leave it at that. There is definitely some truth to the conclusions (often accompanied by theatrical faints) that come from African parents fearing that their children may never teach their own children their native tongue. And it is indeed a damn shame.

But we also need to start facing some hard truths:

You cannot base an entire save-my-language campaign on your belief that it is “pretty”. That is simply not good enough. In 2013, in the depths of a world-wide recession, nobody is investing huge amounts of time and money into preserving things because doing so will make them feel good.

Language is about practicality. This is a fact. The first homoerecti that invented language did not do so because it made their insides feel warm to release a series of grunts and vowels into the air between them. No, they did it because they needed to get a certain job done.

And if your plan is to save your language so that your grandchildren can hear that the story of the tortoise and the hare sounds so much better in your language then whatever your plans are to save it are hereby doomed.

I have to tell you some harsh truths because all this dilly-dallying about the beauty of African languages has done close to nothing for us thus far.

I repeat: in order to save your language it must become a necessity for anyone living in your country/community to speak it in order to thrive and survive. Instilling a pride in it can only do so much.

The questions we must begin to ask ourselves must veer away from the abstract (“how do I save my language?”) and move towards the practical (“how do I make it an absolute necessity for anyone living in my community to have to learn my language in order to thrive?”). Those are the sort of questions we must start asking ourselves. Otherwise this whole exercise is doomed.

But no-one wants to ask themselves that question because it forces us to consider the fact that there may be no hope. That we may have to watch our languages die a slow and painful death because the fact is the new generations of Africans, living in the rat race of perpetual hunger for success are not doing anything for free. And they certainly aren’t learning an entire language because “it has pretty idioms”.

Growth is better than preservation.

Have you taken a look at the Japanese dictionary lately? Or the South Korean one? Perhaps not, but I’m sure you are aware that these languages share one thing in common: a huge selection of really random words. They almost literally have a word for everything.

That is the key to the richness of their languages.

Once upon a time my language, Setswana had a word for everything. And it still does — but only in rural settings. That is one of the challenges we need to face when talking about saving our languages. We need to understand that “preservation” means keeping your language in 1902 for the next three hundred years. And that means most of it is lost as the objects that it “so beautifully” describes disappear from everyday use.

But growth means creating new words for your language. Growth means survival.

For example, I have no use for lefetlho in my professional life — which in 2013 is my life. But I certainly say the word “computer” a lot; “traffic” a lot, etc.

And slapping “u-“, “i-“, “-e” onto English words simply won’t do. Creation is the key word here.

If we wanted our languages to grow we would have entire institutions dedicated to bringing our languages up to date with technology and everyday sayings. This is the essence of practicality.

We may have a shot at saving our languages if we focus on making them grow rather than “safe”.

Here are some examples of what common words sound like in the languages I have mentioned, just to illustrate the preservation vs growth dynamic:
What is known as “computer” in English, becomes the simple “persocon” in Japanese versus the obvious and unoriginal “khomphutara” in Setswana. And the word “cellphone” in English, is a smooth “ketai” in Japanese instead of the cumbersome “mogala wa mogatla” (which nobody uses) in Setswana. In addition, there is “eki” in Japanese for “station” in the place of the unimaginative “i-station” of Zulu.

My point is, we must make our languages grow so that no-one is left wondering why they’re calling a Bantu language a modern language when a sentence is composed of five English words “banturised” and strung together haphazardly. This is imperative.

If we want to save our languages, this is a reality we need to face.

Ultimately, I hope a new dimension is added to the debate on language “preservation” — that we do not focus on feel-good campaigns that do nothing but shame our children for not seeing the point of learning their parents’ languages but rather shift our mind-set to the question of growth and practicality.

Or otherwise we may as well accept reality, brush up on our English and move on swiftly with our lives.