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Setswana – A language on its deathbed? (Part 1)

CORRESPONDENT
Lo ojwa lo sa le metsi: More local children are unable to speak Setswana PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG
A o Motswana wa sekei? If you are, can your offspring speak Setswana? If not, why? I have heard a number of Batswana saying this about their children, ‘heela, kana ga a itse Setswana,’ and thereafter collapsing into a high-pitched cackle. What could be the issue? Low self-esteem? Or do we simply hold English in higher regard? KEVIN MOKENTO* writes

Is English a prestigious language? Is Setswana worthless and inferior? We have a beautiful language that rivals any in the excelling beauty of its idioms, character and complexion. Think about phrases such as; Tlhotsa pele ga se e swa pele, Gatwe go sha kae, A ko o bone bomabina go tsholwa. How would you begin to translate these expressions without watering down the dynamism captured in their flavour!

In 1892, Richard Pratt, an American general said, “Kill the Indian and save the man….. He is born a blank like the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition and life.” Pratt advocated for the Americanisation of native Americans. In his view they were savages and could benefit from being civilised. Pratt appreciated that an effective tool for denying a sense of identity to people with a common heritage is to deprive them the right to speak their language.  Languages die. This is not always driven by the desire of speakers of such languages to associate themselves with a major language. Undue pressure is often imposed by an aggressive dominant language. Sadly, in the case of Setswana, some of us gloat in contributing to the throwing of our language down the cliff.

Is Setswana on its deathbed? Do we care? Are we unfazed because we have another medium of communication, an international language that enables us to converse with our loved ones and execute our day-to-day business with ease? Do we consider our language a treasured heritage? Do we appreciate that we have the solemn duty to protect Setswana for the eternal benefit of posterity?  This article promotes bi and multilingualism. Research has proven that there are inherent benefits to speaking more than one language, such as alertness, flexibility, improved memory and superior thinking capacity. Like the English writer Geoffrey Willians once said, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” Do our children trip over Setswana words. Do they speak Setswana and English with the same accent, the English accent? If so, whenever that happens, how do we feel? Do our faces glow with admiration or do we feel like praying for the earth to open up and swallow us? A language is an important cultural dynamic. It defines people and gives its speakers a unique sense of identity and self-worth. I have a black British friend who

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keeps on moaning about her lack of identity. She speaks a language that was forced on her ancestors.  A language that doesn’t speak to who she is or what she represents. She has reluctantly embraced a language and a culture which do not resonate with her genetic make-up. She would like to have a native language to speak with a sense of pride and ownership. But her natural right has been irreversibly violated.  Ripples of flawed views permeate our society and some of them are gradually curdling into a titanic wave of misinformation. English is associated with prestige and superior IQ. In the late 1980s, Form Five students who failed English were given a failing grade despite performing with distinction in other subjects. While we have successfully emancipated ourselves from this mental slavery, minute traces of that unfortunate regressive mindset abound. What a shame that young ones are denied an opportunity to speak their language! Owing to their level of maturity, they may feel it’s the coolest thing ever, that they are sophisticated and on top of the world. Some despise Setswana and have turned their mates who cannot speak English as well as them into laughing stocks. Has it ever dawned on us that, as they grow up and get to appreciate that the ability to speak English fluently is not synonymous with intelligence, they might start asking us questions that we might find hard to answer?

One lame excuse that has been peddled for confining a child’s linguistic capacity to English is that it enables him to excel at school. Don’t we have numerous examples of students who have done well despite their exposure to multiple languages? True, such children express themselves much better in their primary language, but are still able to speak, read and grasp grammatical rules of their secondary language. Perhaps, you are a living example of this!  Contrary to widespread misconception, exposure of children to multiple languages does not cause confusion. The truth is, it takes a little longer for a child exposed to a multiplicity of languages to master all of them. Is that a problem? No. Such children are often proficient at code switching and excel in retrieving the best word to fit their conversations at any time, thereby conveying their views concisely and clearly.

* Mokento is the pseudonym of a Mmegi contributor. The article will be completed neext week.



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