What happens when your language speaks you?
When you speak a language, that’s fine. The language flows forth from you and you enjoy its glow. You recite all those funny verses you heard and laughed at. Like: “I sat next to the Duchess at tea/Feeling as miserable as can be/Her rumblings abdominal/Were simply phenomenal/And everybody thought it was me.” You tell endless stories from the Arabian Nights to Knights of the Buchido. You listen to Othello make his case of the magic he used to steal Desdemona from her father and elders of Venice. You quote for all to hear and applaud Brutus do the very thing he claims he is not doing: setting the mob against the killers of Caesar. What about the dream of Martin Luther King Jnr, I have a dream.
There is Mandela’s idea for which he was prepared to die although he would rather live for it. When you speak a language you approach in awe and speak it with pride. “The world is not a constant honey-pot. Where I found little I made do with little. Where there was plenty I gorged myself.” When you speak the language.
In the case of English colonial subjects for many years claimed that English was forced on them by the colonisers. Ngugi said it and for decades he battled to impose his own language on himself. It did not work. He used his own language to write. It was published and it was read. And then nobody else wrote in the language because there was no compulsion. There were no prefects to enforce the rules. So, today, the country of Ngugi does not enforce the languages of his people. This is one of the reasons why moaners of the death of African languages continue to shed tears.
Then Chinua Achebe comes around and says English was not imposed on him. He learnt it. History brought it to him and he embraced it and expressed his culture, which had ballooned beyond Igbo, as beautifully as it is possible to do. He enriched his English with his Igbo and celebrated a new possibility.
There is no guessing here who is right and who is wrong. It is never an issue of either this or that. It is a case of taking this as well as that.
It is impossible to think without language. Without the instrument to express thought there is no possibility of thinking.
There is also the greater matter of memory and language. What is the relationship between memory, the process of remembering, and language? Is it true that babies have no memories of being babies because they do not have the language to express babyhood? There are researches now attempting to answer this question. What would be the implication of the outcome of such research? We already know through the Babs Fafunwa six year mother tongue education in the 1960s at the then University of Ife that children learn best taught in mother tongue.
In spite of this conclusion African governments continue to mislead their children and teach them in English even from kindergarten. Is there any wonder that these children grow up and want to trek through the desert to Europe and America? And they end up being enslaved in the Arab Republic of Libya
Before going on to look at the implication of research in child remembrance of childhood and the baby documentation of babyhood let’s look at language, memory and ageing. More and more, articulation of language helps the retention of memory into old age. The mastery of language is crucial for the retention of memory.
There is a fear now that we are fast approaching a condition of languagelessness – a condition in which we no longer have a language to speak. This is brought about when we do not speak English correctly and we do not speak Yoruba beyond good morning, how are you. Ailede soni dodi, without language we are dumb.
This means that we have nothing to remember in. Like the languageless baby, our memories belong to others. And when you depend on others for your memories, you depend on others for your dream. This is a short walk to living your life at the behest of others whose interest and dreams do not coincide with yours. This is not all.
We have no language to learn in. Anyone who teaches in our universities today can tell you the horrible levels of English comprehension. They can tell you about the lack of interaction between teacher and student. And talking to them in Yoruba does not help because they are proud to say I don’t understand that language. Welcome to our empty space of languagelessness.
No country determined to progress, to modernise and industrialise neglects to enact laws to force some language direction. These laws do not just enforce language use for all citizens. They enforce laws for the young to guide and guard them into the world of memory, the world of learning and the world of future creation. Japan and China did it. The Japanese used today in Japan is not the only language in use in Japan. The Chinese that China uses today in one fashioned out of many Chinese languages. Deliberate language legislation created that Chinese.
Furthermore, Japan and China made it a law that every student that goes abroad to do a master’s degree or a doctorate must translate something in their field of specialisation into Japanese or Chinese as the case maybe. This immediately means that the student domesticates foreign knowledge immediately and begins to use it as his or her own.
In 1849, the then Egyptian government made the law for Egyptian students studying abroad to render the foreign knowledge they encounter into Arabic. Long ago, Prophet Muhammad urged Arabs to seek knowledge even unto China and render same into Arabic. That way the European Renaissance depended on material translated from Greek into Arabic rendered into European languages when the need arose for rebirth of Europe. The twentieth century industrialisation of modern Egypt over other Arab countries did not happen behind the language law.
It is in the light of the above that the passing of the Yoruba language law makes us speakers of our language. When your language speaks you, you are lost. It is when you speak your language that you are found, never to be lost.