Point of View // 08.08.2010

Losing our Languages

Article by Abena A-T

While my friend and I were eating lunch the other day, we began discussing our desire to have a husband from our home countries so that through them our children would be able to learn our mother tongues.

My friend and I are what I like to call “born-aways”- children who are born away from the birthplaces and homes of our parents and generations of parents before them. We are only one or two generations removed from these countries and so still have some connections, depending on how much our parents chose to expose us. For example, we share the same physical traits as people from our home countries, we understand some or most of our mother tongues though we can’t speak it all that well, and we are familiar with numerous aspects of the culture e.g. elders are called auntie or uncle, we give and accept things with our right hand, there is a blurred line between cousins and your “real” brothers and sisters, etc.

My friend has Rwandan roots. She was born in Uganda and has literally lived all over the world. In her short 23 years she has lived in seven countries spanning across Africa, Europe and North America. Myself, I was born and raised in Canada and have Ghanaian roots. I am a first-generation Canadian. And depending on who you talk to, this means that my family is still new to Canada and that because of this and my African features, I’m an African (the kind of African is unimportant) and that’s all that makes sense for me to be. Sometimes this thinking bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t. It bothers me when people insist on categorizing me based solely on how I look and ignore the fact that I was born and spent 23 of my 24 years in Canada. They then proceed to make foolish statements like “oohh you must find it so cold” and “wow, your English is so good!” and ask “when are you going back to your homeland?”

On the other hand, being classified or considered an African before being considered a Canadian doesn’t bother me because I am an African and proud of it. There are so many things I love about being African, Ghanaian specifically: our stunning fabrics, our ever-evolving fashions, our delicious dishes and the fiery pepper we put in everything, our sense of humour, our proverbs, our contagious rhythms, our black skin and pink lips… I could go on. In fact many times I wish I were more African than I am, especially when it comes to speaking my language. Both my friend and I, having grown up outside of our home countries and not around many Rwandans or Ghanaians respectively, haven’t gotten as good of a grasp on our languages as we’d like.

I don’t regret being “born away” and I don’t think my friend does either. We’ve had the chance to live in countries that people dream of visiting. We understand the privilege that lies in having lived in these places and in being able to speak English quite well on top of that. But we see the value in being able to communicate with our people. I understand Twi quite well and can speak it okay but am sometimes frustrated when my words come out slow and broken. I’ve been laughed and snapped at that I should learn how to speak properly. Even though I know they shouldn’t, these things make me hesitant to keep practicing. It also makes my sadness at not knowing even stronger and my desire to learn more urgent. I envy children for whom Twi, and usually one or two other African languages, spill out of their mouths like milk.

It is during those moments of embarrassment and fear of it that I think: if I had a Ghanaian husband this problem would be solved. I would practice with him all day and night and he wouldn’t laugh at me except in a playful way and I would get so good and my children would know how to speak, and they wouldn’t be lost and our culture would live on. That’s a lot of pressure for a man, I know.

But I do feel the desire, a little bit of a responsibility to experience my culture fully through language both for myself and for any children I might have. It saddens me to think that all the African languages are being lost and replaced with languages like English and French because they are more economically beneficial. The year 2006 was the ‘Year of African Languages’- an effort to promote the use of the mother tongue. There is evidence that African languages are fading. According to UNESCO, Africa is the most diverse continent in the world linguistically. However with less than 10, 000 speakers, up to 300 African languages are considered by the UN to be endangered. At the same time, people are recognizing the wealth of culture and knowledge that is lost when we let these languages die.

In an article I read recently, the writer talked about how within African languages are rich knowledge bases in the areas of medicine, medicinal practices and agriculture and that this knowledge could make significant contributions to modern science. (It already has but I’ll save my opinions on giving credit where it’s due for another article). But he says that the marginalization of these cultures and languages, or the undervaluing of their worth and/by the substitution of them with English, French and western culture, can result in the permanent loss of vital knowledge. He gave the example of innovations by farmers and rural communities being left out of modern science and technology due to the lack of local terms in which to express them.

So what do we do? The Gaelic community in Nova Scotia, Canada, is the only one outside Scotland that practices elements of their Gaelic culture and language. A group of people concerned about the dwindling language formed a non-profit society called Comhairle na Gàdhlig to preserve and promote the Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia and around the world. The Mi’kmaq, the Native Canadians in the Maritimes are also working on reviving their language. They’ve begun teaching it in some schools and are even developing an online dictionary for the Mi’kmaq language.

Big questions float through my mind: ‘Do Africans value their languages enough to emulate the efforts of the Gaelic and Mi’kmaq people?’ ‘Should we just let our languages continue to evolve and accept whatever comes of them even if this means extinction?’ ‘Will there ever be any use on a wider scale e.g. in business, for African languages? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I don’t feel an immediate need to find them either. I only know that I have the heart and ability to learn at least one of these languages-that of my parents and grandparents. And I want to learn it well. It feels so good to understand another language and to know how to say things in another way. It also feels great to say completely new things altogether. It can’t be said enough that much is lost through translation. Translation is like a bridge that creates general understanding between two people. But there are spaces between the planks of this bridge and so much falls through. When we lose languages, we lose pieces of wisdom, angles of humor and unique ways of seeing things that can never be replaced. Speaking Twi to me is like walking through a door to a new vibrant and wonderful land. If I lose the key, it’s like the door is closed and I can only peep through the keyhole and wonder what it’s really like on the other side.

It would be easier if I married a man who spoke Twi, and if my friend married a man fluent in Kinyarwanda. But we know we can’t rely completely on future husbands to make up for the things that we lack, especially when it is something we are capable of learning. What happens if our wishes don’t come true: my husband is not Ghanaian and my friend’s isn’t Rwandan? Then what?

My friend is bravely taking matters into her own hands. She moved back to Rwanda a year ago and has been taking Kinyarwanda lessons. As for me, I promise myself to keep on learning in spite of my fear and painful self-consciousness. If our culture-carrying husbands show up, it will be a bonus but in case we marry Anglophones and our potential children end up being raised in Japan or Finland or something, at least we will have tasted the sweetness of our languages on our own tongues.

6 Responses to “Losing our Languages”

  1. Tasha says:

    Great article! As someone who is also a “born away” this is a conversation I’ve had before and something which I’ve given a lot of thought to. I don’t know about marrying a native speaker, my humourous solution has always been that I’ll leave my kids with my parents for a few years so they can learn Punjabi (my language) properly. But then I have to acknowledge that I was raised by parents my whole life and between media, books, movies, school and friend there were more than enough things to tempt me away from practicing Punjabi and staying within my English comfort zone. I recently heard about a couple, both ‘born aways’ where one partner’s linguistic background is Farsi and the other’s is Creole. They are both committed to having kids that speak these languages and so have started to learn each other’s language. While I’m not sure if they or their future children will be fluent I applaud the effort. Whatever partnership or child rearing situation the future holds for me if it is rooted in valuing the non-colonial languages of our roots I feel like I’ll be off to a good start.

  2. Josh says:

    “…at least we will have tasted the sweetness of our languages on our own tongues.”

    Can’t relate to the story, can only imagine how it must be like. But, Great article and even Greater ending.

  3. Larissa says:

    Awesome article. You took the words right out of my mouth. Im also a “born away” and havnt lived in Rwanda for more than a few months in my whole 23 years of life. I speak french and english and I understand kinyarwanda pretty well. but i do wish i could speak my language but the process just seems painful…the constant embarassment of not being able to speak the language well enough is so daunting that i dont really try which i know is bad. but i do wish sometimes that our africannes wasnt so defined by the language you speak but i wish more that tomorrow i could wake up and just speak my language…but alas.
    again awesome article….

    • Abena A-T says:

      Thanks for reading Larissa and for sharing your thoughts. Its helps to know you’re not the only one struggling wi this whole language thing. Kudos to you for knowing French in addition to English. I’m still trying to get fluent in my Francais. As for the Kinyarwanda, keep trying, why not? we can do so much more than we think we can! God Bless.

  4. blandine K says:

    hey.first of all i like that women are able to do so.me i am a proudly Rwandan,but i am wondering why many women love white people and wish to be with them.being with someone who understand u very well is good more than being with a stranger……,so keep it up we are with u and we lv u all.

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