I have been watching with despondency and despair various esteemed politicians failing to express themselves in English. The most recent, a clip on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjnpfB80aKc)
the sunday maverick with GLORia NDORO-MKOMBACHOTO
About MP for Buhera South, Joseph Chinotimba speaking to Nehanda TV, about bond notes, provoked so much laughter it went viral as a joke of Trevor Noah comic proportions. I believe that had Chinotimba been afforded the opportunity to speak in Shona, he would have relayed his unique perspective on bond notes and US dollar better.
English is the only official language in Zimbabwe where there are people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, making it a nation rich in vernacular languages. There are 16 languages (Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Zimbabwean sign language, Shona Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa) with the most spoken being English, Shona and Ndebele.
Chinese, Spanish and English in that order are the three top most spoken languages in the world. If you are reading this article you are probably one of the 390 million-odd native English speakers, or 1,75 billion people who speak it as a second or third language around the world. English is the business language of the world and good oratory skills can enable your upward mobility in international markets, but in Zimbabwe, it remains a foreign language. What I am saying is local languages ought to be given space to be developed and spoken at will by the citizenry. That way, there would be minimal errors of omission and commission in communication amongst each other in all spheres of life.
Generally speaking, Zimbabweans have more proficiency in the written than the spoken word. Moreover, the British Council can confirm to anyone who seeks to know that the Zimsec Ordinary Level examinations are more advanced than their supposedly international equivalent GCSE Cambridge Ordinary Level examinations.
English is not the mother tongue of the local indigenous people and not spoken regularly in most homes. Therefore, it is expected that mastery in the written than the spoken word would be higher. That is why when there is high proficiency in spoken English by a public figure, people get star–struck. Former president Robert Mugabe mesmerized and dazzled people with his rare and extraordinary eloquence in the Queen’s language. In fact, Mugabe’s expressive articulateness in English unconsciously set the bar for oratory performances by politicians in Zimbabwe or even across the continent.
So when a politician stutters or fails to effortlessly put a point across in English the way Mugabe did, there is, judgment and joking. The judgment is unfair because the speaker would not have been presented with the choice of speaking in vernacular, a language that they are all too familiar with. But many politicians by themselves feel the need to speak in English either because it is the official language or they feel obliged or pressured to.
A society’s language is a special heirloom that ought to be passed on from one generation to another. A language contains complex understandings of a person’s culture and their connection with their universe. In a 2005 interview, profiled in 2010 on focusonline.ca by Leslie Campbell, cultural anthologist Wade Davis agrees that language is more than just words because it is and encapsulates a way of thinking and being. Davis continues, “…a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules, it’s a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle for which the soul of a culture comes through to the material world. Every language in some sense is an ecosystem of ideas, a watershed of thought, an old growth forest of the mind.” Indigenous languages keep people connected to their culture and this reinforces their sense of belonging, feelings of pride and self-worth. Societies who neglect acknowledging the role of indigenous languages in their midst, do this at their own peril.
When a nation collectively looks down upon its own indigenous languages, in preference for foreign languages, what is it saying about its own intellectual, spiritual and social legacy? When there is miscommunication and misrepresentation because important messages are lost in broken and chaotic English when they could have been heard in perfect vernacular, what does that say about us as a people? If Zimbabweans have any loyalty to themselves as a society, they need to revisit what they have lost over centuries by stymieing indigenous languages. Davis adds, “Losing one’s language is the beginning of a slippery slope towards assimilation and acculturation and, in some sense, annihilation.”
The Nehanda TV interview with Chinotimba was a missed opportunity to hear his unique insights on the issue of bond notes and the US dollars in Zimbabwe. Yes, we are all aware that Chinotimba is not a financial guru nor an economist but as a public figure working in the coal face of rural struggles in Buhera, his understanding of the currency dynamics on the ground is real and undisputed. The nation missed an opportunity to learn from his wisdom just because he failed to articulate his points in English.
The 1920 Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that, “The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualise their world, that is, their world view, or otherwise influences their cognitive processes.” Chinotimba’s interview was not one. It was a monologue by Chinotimba speaking what sounded like English when it was mostly gibberish. He did not make sense at all because his cognitive abilities were processing knowledge in one language (vernacular) and in the process of code-switching, that is, transporting that knowledge to English, a foreign language, he lacks mastery in, his utterances sounded senseless. It was obvious from the interview that was not an interview, that Chinotimba did not “own” the English language and as such, English belongs to a group, which he cannot legitimately claim to be part of. By not clearly narrating his thoughts in vernacular, a language he has fluency in, he was in fact being disenfranchised. Although he had a voice and spoke, the fact that his message was not heard made him voiceless.
I continue to watch with discouragement, on many different social media platforms, Zimbabweans laughing at politicians failing to pronounce English words, phrases or read complete sentences. I am not sure this is justified at all. The unwarranted judgment in the case of Vice President Constantine Chiwenga’s failure to pronounce certain English words in his March 2018 speech and other speeches is perhaps because he holds a PhD from the University of KwaZulu Natal.
There is an assumption that is held dearly in peoples’ minds that holders of PhDs must be competent in both written and spoken English. In October 2012, the late Tsvangirai’s wife, Elizabeth (nee Macheka) was also made a laughing stock for failing to pronounce the word “reiterate”.
It is curious to observe that when Caucasians from say Eastern Europe speak incoherent English, there is a general understanding (from those who judge the politicians) that, English is not their mother tongue. I often wonder why that same quantum of generosity and degree of understanding is not extended to the politicians.
On another level, can you imagine how the wholesale minimisation of indigenous languages has affected development and learning amongst children within school systems. Multilingualism should be encouraged at schools but not at the expense of the mother tongue.
CNN’s Harmeet Kaur in June 2018 reported that, “A lot of multilingual countries promote (English) as an official language, but the United States has never done so with English. In fact, the US has no official language.” So why does Zimbabwe feel the need to suppress its own indigenous languages? When English is the only official language, it becomes the benchmark crowding out indigenous languages. Being able to communicate effectively and without shame in an individual’s first or home language connects a person to their past, present future, ethnicity and helps to shape that person’s identity.
It is high time the Ministry of Sports, Youth and Culture revisited the issue of indigenous languages in Zimbabwe. The affirmation of indigenous languages will not take away but add to the welfare and well being of the speakers. A society with no pride in its indigenous languages is a disenfranchised society. It is a society that is failing to pass its cultural heritage and knowledge through language for language is an integral part of maintaining a society’s collective self-esteem, shared values and a strong sense of identity.
In 2012, the United Nations held a forum on “The Study of the role of languages and culture in the promotion and protection of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples”. The importance of language is summed up in the following quote:
“Language is an essential part of, and intrinsically linked to, indigenous peoples’ ways of life, culture and identities. Languages embody many indigenous values and concepts and contain indigenous peoples’ histories and development. They are fundamental markers of indigenous peoples’ distinctiveness and cohesiveness as peoples.”
There is a disconnection in the way Zimbabwe has been governed for the last 38 years. Something is off. The returnees from the war of liberation who swiftly took positions in government were inexperienced in running a country. But over time there has been training and up-skilling. Personally, I believe that had the use of indigenous languages been elevated to the same level as English, there would be a better grasp of challenges facing the country, better service delivery and most importantly, there would be more empathy to the plight of desperate citizens in and outside the country today.
Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org