Zambian children -A crisis of language

By Laura Miti

Chances are that every Zambian parent who is reading this has children at home who speak only English. It is also very probable that all of us reading this have a Zambian language as our own first language. In other words, the language we speak best is not English. There is of course that section of us who operate best in English. Sadly though, we too do not have first language proficiency in it.  Native language competence is, as those who work in the field will tell us, about more than grammar and understanding. It’s about the ability to understand nuances, produce complex sentences as well as the possession of a developed vocabulary which allows the use of multiple synonyms (different words) for the same thing. So yes there are many Zambians who have a 2nd sometimes even 3rd language grasp of what is their first language.  It’s a sad place to be which is why I want to talk about our children.

The reason I want to talk about Zambia’s children, especially those from the better side of the street, is that somehow somewhere it seems we agreed with ourselves as a nation that teaching our children to speak a language that we ourselves do not have complete mastery of was clever. So, exclusive English in homes became fashionable. To take this bizarre consensus to a whole new level, we also came up with the idea that we would insist that our house helpers, who on any day spend the most time with our tots, would also be instructed to speak to them in English.

It is at this point that my mind totally boggles. How did we get here?

How did we convince ourselves that ba Martha,  wa Martha or aunt Martha to our children, a woman with, at best, a vocabulary of no more than a 100 English words would be allowed to speak in that English to a child still developing her language skills?

How did we decide that the said  ba Martha would spend the day repeating phrases like  “Junior stoopu yoooou, Junior eaaaty, camu heeere Junior.” That, that is all our babies would hear all day long at, again I stress, a critical period of their language development.

But then it was not too big a problem was it? After all mum and dad would come home at the end of day and raise the level of verbal interaction Junior received. But raise it to what?

We have already established that we ourselves on the most part will not be able to, in English, give our children the telling off every smarty pants earns for himself every so often.  You know the kind of which we feared more than the belt from our own mums. We just don’t have the vocabulary for the simple reason that we do not have adequate competence in English. And so, a whole generation of children is being condemned to never hearing in their own home the kind self-expression first language proficiency allows.

If you still do not have an idea why this irks me so much let me put it this way. 90%, and I am being generous it is probably  more like 99%, of the Zambian children who speak English as their first language have a language grasp and articulation of a child a good five years younger than they are. In short they are linguistically retarded.

They do not have the age appropriate vocabulary leave alone the grasp of complex syntax.

Compare any 5-year old from Ku Mayadi to their counterparts in the dust of Chawama and see the difference in linguistic expression.  If you love your kid, your heart should break.

What I am saying simply is that this “speak English only phenomena” is equal to an HIV of the mind in Zambia. We are slowly but surely killing the nation’s ability to think and therefore express itself. It is a tragedy not because it is English we choose to speak but because we are passing on an increasingly weaker first language competence to children. The fact that we largely do not read to our children, or make them read themselves when they are older, compounds the situation.

Deciding that it’s alright for a child to have a 3rd language grasp of their primary language is like deciding that your child, with no physical handicap whatsoever, will only ever crawl because they have never seen anyone walk.

The point is a child who has only crawled cannot, bar some major physiotherapy intervention, be taught to walk later in their teens. Their limbs will have been weakened for life.

That’s what we are doing to the language skills of our children. The first five years of a child’s life are critical in language development. At that stage, the brain is primed to learn the rules and nuances of language. A child should at this time hear complex speech and different ways of saying the same thing. A child whose mother says  leka walaichena  or ala wemwana walaikula ameno, then bushe ulefwaya ndande shani ukuti umfwe, and finally  nga tawaleke walalila on certain days there is even nalakunyesha  learns to work out how serious the “stop that” is but also, critically, that there are always various ways in which the same thing can be said. On the other side of the road, all that our Junior will be hearing is, “stoopu yoooou, I said stoopu, butty this oneeee.” The only thing he has to work with, to gauge mum’s or ba Martha’s mood and level of irritation with his antics, is the decibel level she chooses to use. So it is a case of “ok now she is screaming, I must stop.” The result of this is the English you hear from Zambian children confidently murdering every rule of grammar “you they are calling youuuu (one person who happens to be adult is calling him.) Then there is “its colour blue; I am asking” Oh my God, I think to myself. We either have to sort this out or agree we have developed a pidgin language.

Let me end by repeating that I am not in any way suggesting there is a problem in wanting your child to speak English as the first language they acquire. It is just that if it is not the language adults around them speak best, you are doing your a child a major disservice. Why not let ba Martha or the grandparents speak only Nyanja, Bemba or Luvale to Junior. Then you can do the English thing yourself. All children, after all, can pick multiple languages in childhood and be highly proficient in all.  A child who goes to pre-school knowing only Nyanja, will, by the end of term two, be fluent in English.  Oh by the way, I have already heard the argument that ba Martha will generally insist on speaking English because it makes her feel good.

My answer to that is I would fire, on the spot, anyone I found speaking to my child in the kind of English our helpers usually do. Just like I would not countenance a nanny routinely compromising my baby’s physical well being, I would not keep one who compromised the development of his mind.

All I am saying good people is that every human being needs to speak and understand one language excellently early in life, it does not matter which language.  That initial full development of the language section of the brain becomes the basis of their ability to first to think but also to learn subsequent languages well. I am also saying that, as things stand in Zambia, we are condemning our children to retardation.  Oh by the way, not wanting your child to speak any Zambian language as a matter of policy is plain dumb! Have a Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year everyone.

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