Mmegi Online :: The loss of mother tongue?
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Last Updated
Wednesday 29 March 2017, 09:24 am.
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The loss of mother tongue?

"Young people nowadays ke makgoa, they speak English only, if you ask them a question, they respond in English, they don't understand Setswana," says Freddy 'Rra-Lindiwe' Molebatsi.
By GOTHATAONE MOENG
Staff Writer
(GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: The loss of mother tongue?








Molebatsi is a 79-year-old father of two brought up in Maitengwe who has been a long time resident of Tlokweng.He speaks Setswana with both a sprinkle of South African Tswana accent and a slight Ikalanga accent, the former a result of 27 years spent in South Africa as a construction worker, where he says he first learnt Setswana along with Sotho, Zulu, Venda and Afrikaans. Despite the languages he learnt later in his life, the traces of his formative years in Maitengwe, where he spoke Ikalanga exclusively - "the language I suckled from my mother" - are evident.

Molebatsi shares his concern about young people's predilection - at the expense of indigenous languages - for English with his 68-year-old wife Gertrude Gini 'Mma-Lindiwe' Molebatsi who, originally from Standerton, South Africa, grew up speaking Sotho and  Zulu. Their concern, however, is microcosmic of how the older generation feel about what has been described in some quarters as a crisis of Botswana's mother tongue languages.

Languages spoken in Botswana are estimated at around 23, many of which are under threat of extinction.  Of these, Setswana is the only indigenous language that has been granted the status of a national language, a fact that has not sat well with many from non-Tswana speaking tribes.

However, it is becoming evident, especially in urban areas, that despite its national status, Setswana is also a language in crisis; one that is fast disappearing.  While the 10-year-old statistics from the 2001 population census have the number of people living in Gaborone at only 186,007, it is otherwise evident that the country is fast becoming urbanised. English is widely used in urban areas. This is mainly so because English is both an official and business language thus glorifying and celebrating English speaking, while looking down upon people not fluent in English. As more and more parents want their children to speak English, they prefer to send them to non-governmental schools, resulting in the proliferation of English medium schools, not just in Gaborone, but in the whole country.

The language spoken predominantly at the Molebatsi's is Setswana. Freddy and Gertrude Molebatsi speak Setswana to each other, and say that, as soon as they moved to Botswana, they began speaking the language to their children. As a result, their children speak a mixture of English and Setswana, and they can vaguely understand Ikalanga, and some Ikalanga rituals.

On the day of the Mmegi team's visit, when Siphiwe, their 14-year-old grandson arrived home, he greeted his grandfather in the traditional Kalanga greeting of 'go butjila', extending his clasped hands to his grandfather's lips.  When their youngest daughter, 32-year-old Lucia Molebatsi came in, she remarked in English, "Oh, so all the generations are here" in English.  Her father jumped in, " You see, this is what we have been talking about the whole day, English all the time."

Mma-Lindiwe noted that, "These kids are sometimes given homework and told to ask their parents for help if they don't understand. And they can't explain what they need to their parents in Setswana." She added that sometimes when you speak to children in pure Setswana they don't understand. 

Their daughter Lucia said that although she is not fluent in Ikalanga, she would like to learn. She feels more comfortable speaking English and Setswana,  although she said she has been told that her Setswana is not good.

"I think it's because at

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school it was emphasised that we speak English," Lucia explained, adding that "for you to be 'in' you needed to speak English, so we grew up knowing that it is an important language to speak."

Similar reasons are given by her 17-year-old niece Ntombi, who said that she and her friends speak English mostly because teachers encouraged them to speak English so they can do better in their exams, and because "some of my friends say they find Setswana difficult".   She said that she even  finds some Setswana words difficult. "It's always difficult for me to say the word 'reetsa', I always end up saying 'theetsa.'" 

Her brother Siphiwe said that at school, they were not allowed to respond to teachers in Setswana, unless they were in a Setswana lesson.

"Yeah, sometimes we laugh at people who don't speak English well," Siphiwe said, "I think it's because there is some understanding that if you speak English well you are 'high class'".  He has heard older people complain that young people use English too often, but says although he thinks it is important to learn other languages, English is also very important.

"Everything is done in English, you have interviews in English," he said.  Siphiwe also said that he feels that sometimes elders are being too strict when they say young people use English too much, because some words that he and his friends use do not have Setswana equivalents.

As the country becomes more and more urbanised, and the pace of life hastens, family rituals such as story-telling that fostered the enjoyment of, and encouraged the handing-down of, Setswana and other mother-tongue languages have disappeared.

All languages, like culture, are not static, and every year there is a barrage of new words added for use by contemporary society.  While, countries such as France hold their languages in high esteem, and accordingly regulate and updates its language consistently, there is no such body in Botswana. Some decades ago, Batswana did not have need for words like computer and helicopter, and have had to find equivalents for them in words such as "sebala-makgolo" and "sefofane as tlhoo-tomo," which urban legends say were invented by early radio news readers.

On the other hand, according to an online Catholic Encyclopedia, a body called the Academie Francaise was founded in 1634 to act as an official authority on the usage of the French language and "to set forth the purification of the French language".  France remains extremely wary of the anglicisation of its language today, and requires its use in commercial and workplace communication.

But should young people today strive to speak Setswana?  The Molebatsi children all say that they think it is important for them to speak their mother tongue if only to keep their roots.

But, Lucia noted, it is important too to learn international languages because "the world is turning into a global village and it's important for your child to fit in other parts of the world."    Lucia said that it is not necessary for mother tongue languages to be taught in schools, but that instead, "there should be programmes in place to promote these languages, something like resource centres."

"Looking at my own family, my sister can speak fluent Zulu, my late brother  could speak Kalanga. My parents tried to incorporate these languages into our everyday lives, that is what we should be doing," she said.

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