Mmegi Blogs :: A case for language Renaissance
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Friday 21 September 2018, 15:09 pm.
A case for language Renaissance

The other day, I asked my friends why the African child must struggle with a lingual code in order to access knowledge. At the risk of sounding like a pseudo Pan Africanist with colonial baggage, it is a big deal with me that knowledge, in particular science and law, are encrypted in a foreign code and that as Africans, we must learn such foreign codes before we can lay claim scientific progress.
By Kgosietsile Ngakaagae Fri 22 Jun 2018, 13:55 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: A case for language Renaissance

I was a teacher during my national service days and can vividly remember instances where children, at Standard 7, struggled to acquire basic knowledge because they simply could not surmount the English language.

I am not talking about kids who have a language disability. I am talking about kids who spoke Setswana fluently. I have met teachers and people from almost every other profession who have challenges with the same language.

Correct me if I am wrong; I am unaware of any first world country that uses, as medium of instruction, a borrowed code. The French learn in French, the Chinese in the native language(s), the Japanese use their code. Just about every scientifically advanced nation relies upon an indigenous code for acquiring, developing and preserving knowledge.

I genuinely believe that Africa has short-changed herself. The dream of an innovative and scientifically progressive Africa may in fact be in reconsidering whether foreign languages have really served us well and how far indigenous languages can take us.

We need English to communicate with the world just as we need French and Mandarin. Differences in language never frustrated trade between England and France, nor between America and China. We do not need English as a medium of instruction in our schools.

Non millenials will recall a time when failing English, as a subject, automatically resulted in academic doom. One failed, however much they had excelled in other subjects.

Somehow, I believe all  whose academic progression was frustrated by that utterly foolish dispensation ought to have their certificates recalled and properly graded. The system was absolute hogwash considering that at the same time, Batswana were assisted by Cuban doctors who could hardly construct an English sentence. 

At Form 5, a  friend of mine passed all other subjects offered in the English language proving he had enough working knowledge of the subject. He had a healthy aggregate score, but was left shame-faced when the results were put up. He had failed a purely theoretical subject that was for many, nothing but a status symbol. He was discarded as unfit for tertiary education and consigned to the ranks of the academically defeated. 

When I raised this subject, a friend of mine, a fellow lawyer, gently reminded me that all our laws are written in English and that in fact English is, by law, the official language of the courts.  That was a sobering reminder to a man who writes a column in English, spends almost everyday reading, speaking and dressing English and who, half the time, uses English in his communication with his children.

But it is only because we have to struggle so much to make English our children’s first language. We fear that without


it, they have no foothold in the future. English, to many a parent, is the future. I say it need not be that way.

 I am, to date, unaware of a single statute or customary law book written in Setswana or any other local language. Now, that’s a shame to the government.

It’s a shame to me too and many others in my profession who delight in calling ourselves ministers in the temple of justice.

Talk about the Constitution, the Penal Code, the Children’s Act, the Matrimonial Causes Act and the many other laws that we interact with on a daily basis. Why is it that such basic statutes remain encrypted in a language not our own when such are so critical to our daily existence? I speak here of local languages as a whole, not one.

We have made knowledge needlessly elitist. This must change.  Every citizen must be capable of accessing his country’s laws in one or the other of the many local languages. Every citizen must be able to obtain a degree in his or her chosen vocation in an indigenous language.

Call it wishful thinking, I am happy. I know it can be done. We only need civic and political willpower. We have blamed colonialists for everything wrong with our corrupt Africa and frankly, we are now past that stage. Truth be told, many of Africa’s injuries are self inflicted.

Now, I have been around the law books 18 long years.  I can, therefore, profess some acquaintance with legal language. I cannot figure out any clear reason why we do not have our statutes in local languages.

In the meantime we say ignorantia iuris habet non excusat. That, for you, my engeneering friends, means that ignorance of the law does not afford an excuse for wrongdoing. We use  the jargon of a Roman language long dead and it’s acceptable in our courts. I can well understand that presently there may have to be uniformity of records in so far as language is concerned. But that is only an excuse. At law school, we encountered instances where we would be assigned to study a case authority only to find that it is in the Afrikaans language.  We would then find the case neatly summarised in English somewhere. When studying in Stellenbosch, I learnt that there was a deliberate effort to ensure that Afrikaans remained a scientific language. We can do the same.

There is a need to start developing local languages as legal and scientific languages. That would have the effect of language development, scientific and economic progress. My argument is simple. Our future as a nation, and as Africa, is in our languages.

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