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Revisit myth of English as official language


Zimbabwe’s Medium-Term Plan (MTP) launched on July 7 2011 by the Ministry of Economic Planning and Investment Promotion, highlighted Human–Centred Development as a key pillar.

One of the most important ingredients of human –centred development is language. To achieve human development, we have to revisit the myth of English as an official language.

The MTP should be repackaged into languages spoken by ordinary people such as Shona, Ndebele, Tonga and many others.

This will empower people to conduct business in their own languages through which they dream, aspire and make sense of the world. English should only be used to engage with the outside world.

To the extent that economic planning in Zimbabwe is currently the preserve of economists, some of the educated people who attended the MTP launch could not understand the arcane language in which the document was couched.

Most Zimbabwean indigenous languages have rich metaphors which can inspire business and economic development.

If English was the only language of success as is assumed in Zimbabwe, the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans whom we are trying to emulate, would not have become economic giants.

These nationals have been very good at borrowing Western technology and domesticating it to suit their culture and languages.

If the Japanese have been inspired by the Samurai and rice farming, why can’t we get inspiration from our rich mythology and smallholder farming, among other aspects?

The Chinese and Japanese have debunked the myth that English is the language of success. As Zimbabweans, we should stop associating English language with knowledge.

The Chinese gentlemen who shared experiences from his country during the MTP launch, struggled with expressing his ideas in English, but you could tell that he would be more articulate in Mandarin or any other Chinese language.

In the history of development, no country has ever developed using a foreign language.

Let us harness the wisdom of our African languages and domesticate everything including science and technology.

We will not achieve our development goals while embracing the current development paradigm whose narrow conception of knowledge is disempowering our western educated elite to solve simple problems.

Indigenous knowledge has a key role here.

Zimbabweans are very innovative if given opportunities. Numerous young people are itching to seed our socio-economic development in our culture and ICTs. In an enabling environment, we will soon have a local name for the Internet
and our own indigenous knowledge servers with our local content.

Nothing can stop us from producing our own version of Wikipedia in our own languages. In fact, we should be more powerful in the global village because we speak English as well as our languages.

The ministry should move economic planning beyond economists, academics, captains of industry and other usual suspects.

Ordinary people can surely embrace the MTP and commit themselves if it speaks to them in indigenouslanguages.

Instead of fully participating, there are so many Zimbabweans who are just watching from the economic terraces due to lack of policy dialogue and engagement at lower levels.

Through spearheading economic discussion spaces among ordinary people, the ministry can harvest important insights toward people–centred development.

There is no point in ‘economic experts’ speaking to each other in a foreign language when the majority are waiting for the fruits of such discussions. This tendency has, for a long time, fostered a dependency syndrome.

The MTP should be anchored on the rich dreams and aspirations of ordinary Zimbabweans who have reliable practical experience in surviving economic hardships over the last ten years.

While it is good to be ambitious, the MTP should be realistic and plug into what people are already doing. For example, under a section on housing and construction (page 72), the document says, the MTP seeks to provide adequate, affordable and decent housing to the population.

Besides being unrealistic, this line of thinking does not take into account people’s ongoing initiatives which may just need to be promoted and stimulated.

Economic development is too important to be left to economists alone. The whole world is waking up to the value of co-creation and harnessing of knowledge from diverse sources.

Let us start translating our knowledge through conversations with every Zimbabwean – formally educated or not.

We should identify and question prevailing assumptions of knowledge production.

Rather than speaking in tongues in order to sound educated, economists and the MTP should explain in plain English and indigenous languages the meaning of terms like: GDP, FDI, quasi fiscal operations; current account deficit; double- digit savings; prudent fiscal measures, recurrent expenditures and many others replete in the MTP.

Local knowledge and norms are the backbone of enduring socio-economic solutions.

The government should realise that knowledge is the only resource that can accelerate and deepen development processes.

When applied to all types of innovation such as the informal sector it can spur wealth generation and investment in advanced technologies such as ICTs.

Translation has a fundamental role in this regard.

The MTP should leverage the talent of numerous translators and knowledge intermediaries in Zimbabwe.

What is needed is not just literal translation, but intermediation of meaning among people from different academic disciplines.

For instance, how does economics speak to agriculture?

Disciplinary divisions in our education system have created artificial boundaries that are impeding broad inquiries across knowledge systems.

Without a shared language, there is no effective collaboration.

Embracing translation should see us revisiting the organisation of knowledge production in our universities which is based on a disciplinary mode developed in Western universities around the 19th and 20th centuries.

This knowledge production system is reproduced in our organisations and government departments.

People from different disciplines have no mechanism of sharing knowledge such that economists speak to themselves while agricultural engineers also form their own silo.

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