Today in 1952, police shot dead four Bangladeshi students in a fight to save their mother language. Inspired by their martyrdom, the World Mother Language Day also calls on Malawians to rethink how they are preserving their languages. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Paramount Chief M’mbelwa IV’s burial was a weekend to remember for many, but another to forget for those who cherish mother languages as the hallmark of any tribe.
Five days before the World Mother Language Day, Ngonis from Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland and South Africa converged on Mzimba on Saturday to bury the inkosi ya makosi (king of kings) who, according to Senior Chief Mtwalo, “took pride in his tribal dances, language and way of life”.
Ironically, the only fluent Ngoni at the funeral of the celebrated cultural warrior were the eulogies of Prince Thulani Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where all Ngonis originated from. The rest were sporadic chants overshadowed by Chichewa, Chitumbuka and English speeches.
But it was not the first time that clueless listeners surrounded a Ngoni-speaking visiting royal at M’mbelwa’s Edingeni headquarters. Equally dazed was South Africa’s High Commissioner Ntombi Mabude when she donated 20 Zulu-English dictionaries to Ngoni Heritage Association during the Umtheto Cultural Festival in 2010.
“The envoy was shocked to see Malawians singing Ngoni songs without knowledge of the language,” says the association’s secretary, Mzuzu Museum curator Aupson Thole.
All this points to one certainty: The mother language of the country’s Ngoni is endangered along with almost half of the world’s 6 000 languages, including many others in the country.
Many are tribal groups spearheading the revival of endangered languages, but they are not the only way of preserving mother languages in the multilingual country where the commission in 2007 recommended the legislation of Chichewa as a national language because it is taught in schools and widely spoken across the country.
Acknowledging raging fears that the proposal could suppress minority languages and deny some citizens their natural right, the constitutional review urged “sufficient constitutional guarantees be put in place for the respect, support and development of all languages to ensure that the national language is not detrimental”.
Textbooks, written in one’s mother language, are one of the powerful tools in encouraging people to preserve their mother languages while learning and using other languages.
Under the theme ‘Books for Tongue Education’, this year’s World Mother Language Day seeks to emphasise the importance of written material in mother tongues and also the importance of mother tongue education.
History of the country has it that early missionaries and British colonial governors encouraged education with emphasis on the use of vernacular.
In a research conducted in 2008, titled School Language Policy: Research and Practice in Malawi, researcher Henri Chalora writes that before independence in 1964, vernacular languages were “widely used as a medium of instruction, especially in the first two or three years” which early childhood experts say determine pupils’ chances in life.
Although founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1968 made Chichewa the lingua franca “to foster national unity”, the impact of the policy became public years after the dawn of multiparty in 1993.
In 1996, government, in circular IN/2/14, directed that “standards 1, 2, 3 and 4 be taught in their own mother tongue” although some teachers were not familiar with languages commonly spoken in the area where they were posted.
Despite embracing linguistic diversity, Chichewa remains the only local language in textbooks and the rest of the subjects and textbooks are taught in English—the age-old official language for government, education, media, Judiciary and business.
In an article published in The Nation recently, executive director of Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb) Roy Hauya argued that the policy does not only limit students to one medium of expression but also obscures comprehension as well as meaning and clarity of their responses.
“Virtually all reviews of students’ performance made by examiners and class teachers point out poor language skills as the single most important factor affecting performance,” wrote Hauya in reaction to concerns over deteriorating results in Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations.
Thus, this year’s World Mother Language Day reminds policy makers that promotion of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage multilingual education but also to inspire fuller awareness of linguistic diversity and solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.