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Local languages vital for development

Opinion & Analysis
Tapiwa Gomo.

ONE friend of mine once called expressing concern that his children were not fluent in local languages.

His concern was largely about how his children would converse with their grandparents. Other than that, he did not think there was another reason they should learn local languages. There are too many parents these days who think if their children spoke fluent English, undermining local languages, is a sign of sophistication, intellect and success.

They do not realise that to effectively and productively function in a society where the majority of the people speak local languages, not speaking mother tongues is a huge impediment. It may work when children are still in school where they speak among themselves, but once school is over and they join society, they will need to talk to the helper in the house and whoever they work with or under or those they supervisor. You cannot hire a translator to convey a message to your employee assuming the children came from a well-to-do family.

The people who make things move speak nothing but local languages. It is the language of conversation and, therefore, production. The people who work in industries, supermarkets and manufacturing do not need to speak in a language they are uncomfortable with to be productive. It is a limitation to them to impose a foreign language on them.

Then there is another one who has been travelling around the world with his family wherever his job took him. He was of the view that he should be with his family everywhere he was deployed. A great idea indeed as that helps to keep the family together. However, that too comes with its own costs.

For him, it means that, other than learning from their parents, his children did not have access to learn his mother tongue. His concern was that without a grasp of Zimbabwean languages, his children would grow up without a sense of identity and belonging.

Based on these two cases, it may appear as if the only role local languages play is to perform social function not operational. Is it the general thinking that if all our children speak foreign languages such as English, then we have made it in life and we have equipped our children with an important skill set that they need to contribute to their own and national development?

On February 21, which is the National Youth Day in Zimbabwe, the world commemorated the International Mother Language Day under the theme: Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education. The International Mother Language Day recognises that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and economic development where everyone can effectively function without being hindered by their inability to master a foreign language.

Imagine how much talent was lost during the time when passing English language at Ordinary Level was the key to opportunities. The government created an impediment in the form of English and made it a requirement for accessing opportunities, forgetting that our country had its own languages and people are at their best when they use the language they are comfortable with. We followed the colonial system by perpetuating its remnants. And a lot of human capital was lost and discouraged.

Local languages are the basis for empowerment and inclusive development. And this is why those behind the campaign encourage and promote multilingual education based on the mother tongue or first language. It is a type of education that begins in the language that the learner masters most and then gradually introduces other languages. This approach enables learners whose mother tongue is different from the language of instruction to bridge the gap between home and school, to discover the school environment in a familiar language, and thus, learn better.

The lack of investment in the promotion of local languages severely undermines learning, cultural expression and the building of social relations, and significantly weakens the linguistic heritage of humanity and the ability of the entire society from being part of the bigger economic human capital.

To back this argument, there are too many examples whereby countries emerged stronger economically because their development plans were built on their local cultural aspects such as local language. The English, the French, the Germans and the rest of the European bloc as well as the recently emerged economies such as the Asian Tigers, China and the middle-eastern countries used their local languages as the base of their economic rise. This is why when we buy equipment, their manuals come in several languages demonstrating that the countries where such equipment was produced stuck with their languages.

The function of local languages should not be limited to conversing with our grandparents or to fit in society, but should be seen as a facilitative function that enables society to get the best out of itself. It is, therefore, crucial that the local language issue is taken into account in the necessary exercise of transforming education and economic development. Above all, however, it requires a more general awareness of the irreplaceability, but fragile value of local languages.

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