The importance of developing mother tongue

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Prof Fhumulani M. Mulaudzi (my mom) share laughs after the re-opening of Revolution Books in Harlem.

I remember just before I left for the US I was on radio and television discussing my financial struggles trying to get to Columbia. Both these interviews were in Tshivenda which is my mother tongue. I remember expressing to my family just how nervous I was because I was afraid I would not be able to articulate myself well enough or that I would not understand the questions properly if they asked the questions in first language Tshivenda. That may seem odd to a lot of people because surely I’m a first language Tshivenda speaker? Well. That’s a loaded question and statement that I will attempt to break down.

I was born in Venda and I lived there until I was five years old. We moved to Pretoria and there I started to learn English and Afrikaans at school. I don’t remember how I learned but I remember that when I was a teenager I read a report card from nursery school where the teacher commented on how I was learning quickly and had improved since arriving at the school. What I do have a slight recollection of is one of my friends – she was black – laughing at me for my accent. We were six so I don’t think it really mattered to me but the fact that I remember tells me that it stung on some level. I remember hurt caused by words more than physical hurt – this is why I think emotional abuse is a largely ignored issue that should be focused on, but I digress.

Fast-forward to when I was in primary school and I went to a school
that was well mixed. We weren’t allowed to speak mother tongue at
school, if I remember correctly it was clearly stated in the school
rules and the teachers emphasized it a lot. This didn’t really affect me because I was a minority even among the black children because most black people in Pretoria speak a Sotho language either Sepedi,
Setswana or Sesotho or SePitori which is just a wonderful mesh of all three and some obscure things that don’t exist in either language in its purest form. So my English just kept getting better. I excelled in spelling bees, general knowledge quizzes, poetry and speech festivals etc. I had pride in my great command of this language.

I spoke my mother tongue at home. When I spoke it at school it was
usually at the request of a classmate who asked me to say something in my mother tongue but then they would turn around and laugh at me. My mother tongue became the subject of my ridicule. It was something
people used to shame me. Then when I attempted to speak their
languages they would ridicule me for that too. For a long time
actually, I didn’t hang out with black friends and if I did, they were not South African. For a long time I was labeled a snob. My refuge was in English and therefore in children who spoke it too. Until today I don’t teach people Tshivenda unless I can see they’re actually interested and want to learn.

(Just so you know, some of these are realizations I’m making now as I write.)

Anyway eventually my school became majority black and I could not
avoid other kids but I still only spoke English and my mother tongue was for home. Then I got to high school and took Sepedi as my second language. I took French as a third. I realized then that I’m actually good at
learning languages. I enjoy it. I aced Sepedi and forgot about my
primary school embarrassment of speaking it out aloud. Thing is, while they laughed at me I programmed my mind to listen to what they said, understand it and also listen to how they said it so I would perfect the accent eventually when I gained the confidence to speak it out
aloud. I clearly did and today I’m very good at even code-switching
accent from Setswana when I speak to a Motswana person to a Pedi
accent when I speak to a Mopedi.

I dropped French as a third because my second teacher was not the most encouraging person and she caused me to resent the language – I was 15 and impressionable and looking back now I was actually being silly and should have carried on with it – but opportunity will present itself in different ways later. I want to learn because at some point I want to head to West Africa and tell stories there.

The point of this background however was to show how largely, my
development of my languages has happened through a school process.
Where languages were offered they would grow and become part of my
thought patterns. My mother tongue was what I spoke at home and
interestingly enough, only to my mom. I think my dad really valued
English as well and he thought it was important for us to speak it. So we would speak to him in English and to my mom in Tshivenda. My mom is the ultimate Africanist and traditionalist too. She believes
wholeheartedly in self-pride so I know that for her, us speaking to
her in English is like a WTF moment.

Anyway, going back to the beginning. I can read my mother tongue even though I was not actually trained to. I can write in it too. Again,
reasons I believe language comes naturally to me. However some of my pronunciation and understanding of “deep” Tshivenda words is pathetic.
I also don’t know many idioms unless they are things I hear my mom say all the time. So if I claim to be a first language Tshivenda speaker, what am I basing this on? The fact that it was the first language I learned to speak? That’s so damn sad. The main question I’m asking myself is, if I had to go into the most rural village in Limpopo with first language Tshivenda speakers would I be able to hold my own? The answer is no. I would probably need a bloody translator to speak to my own people. But if I went to Britain, I would be perfectly fine and if I had problems I could simply consult my dear friend Google.

This is sad. It’s not something I am proud of at all. It’s something
that has irked me for a while but after listening to Ngugi wa Thiong’o speak about his book Decolonising the mind, I know it’s not something I can ignore anymore. Ngugi used to write in English but now he writes his books in his native tongue Gikuyu. I’ve just gotten the book from the library so I can completely understand what he is saying but the jist is part of why I made a clear decision to learn from America then return home. The US is a developed nation, their journalism is great, they don’t need me. In the same vain, English is a developed language. It doesn’t need me to further its cause or to study it any further. What I need to be doing now is studying my own language and telling stories in it so that my people can hear me too. The thing is, if my stories are great someone WILL translate them into English – just like they do with Afrikaans books. Can the same be said the other way around? I’m not certain this would be true.

We have to develop our mother tongues. It’s not optional anymore. It’s not something we have to have conversations about unless we are talking about the process of implementation.

We are Africans living in Africa. Why are we still serving Western
interests? And I’m almost nervous to click the publish button on this because the fact is once I do, someone at some point will hold me accountable for this and I pray you will.

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