The 14th annual International Mother Language Day is on the 21st of February, this Friday.

In her message,  UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova wrote,

“The protection and promotion of mother languages are keys to global citizenship and authentic mutual understanding. Understanding and speaking more than one language leads to a greater understanding of the wealth of cultural interactions in our world. Recognizing local languages enables more people to make their voices heard and take an active part in their collective fate. That is why UNESCO makes every effort to promote the harmonious coexistence of the 7,000 languages spoken by humanity.”  ((UNESCO Director-General’s Message. 2014.

Wow, 7000 languages. Yet, here we are limiting ourselves to one or two languages. We’ve relegated African languages to “home” languages, spoken languages and are depriving ourselves of so much beautiful literature written by the likes of BW Vilakazi, Sibusiso Nyembezi, Sabata-mpho Mokae, Mazisi Kunene, Moses Mtileni, Meshack Masondo, Celiswa Majali and so many many others, even I have yet to find out about.

When Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o famously decided to write only in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, he said,

“I had resolved to use a language which did not have a modern novel, a challenge to myself, and of affirming my faith in the possibilities of language of all the different Kenyan nationalities”  ((Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. London: Heinemann, 1981))

It is important to note that languages die when we do not use them. To develop a language we have to speak it, write in it and even experiment with it to find new ways to grow the language. Of course, for many the choice between using the mother tongue or English is about reaching larger markets but I always contend that that’s what translation is for. Translation also develops language and helps literature to go further. How are we able to read so much literature from Russia, Brazil, Peru, Italy, Sweden, France? Translation. So surely way to reach a world market isn’t by writing in English  (only) but by writing great stories.

Mother tongue literature does exist in South Africa. Much of it is in the educational sector and needs to come over into the trade space. But as Ngũgĩ noted “The growth of writing in African languages will need a community of scholars and readers in those very languages, who will bring into the languages the wealth of literature on modern technology, arts and sciences. For this they need platforms.” ((Moving From the Centre. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1993.))

This means we all have to come to the party – publishers, writes, readers, critics, scholars, editors, teachers, translators… For Ngũgĩ this movement is about “the struggle to move the centre of our literary engagements from European languages to a multiplicity of locations in our languages.” ((ref:2))

What does this mean then? it means we must all make a conscious effort to stop complaining about there being a lack of mother tongue (indigenous language / African language literature) books and make an effort to read what is there. We also need to publish more, sell the books and host events highlighting mother tongue literature. Not just on International Mother Tongue Day or on Heritage day or on Black History Month but everyday.

So what if:

  • we decided to blog/tweet/post in our mother tongues at least once a week
  • for every two books in English by one mother tongue book
  • for every ten pages you read in English, you read three pages in your mother tongue
  • increase the number of pages and books you read in your mother tongue over a period of time so you can improve your reading rate and level
  • read other languages and ask others to help you understand
  • write in your mother tongue, or any other language besides English and welcome help on improving your grammar
  • read to your kids in your mother tongue
  • encourage this practice in your kids’ schools, especially at developmental level
  • take advantage of alternative language learning spaces

What is the point of all this? To free our tongues, promote multilingualism, promote diverse realities, languages and literatures, encourage a more diverse literary landscape, ensure that the lion is able to tell its own story. All of this and more. Homogeneity is boring.

At Book Lover’s Market we are having an online interview with the author of the award-winning Tswana novel Ga Ke Modisa, Sabata-mpho Mokae. This will happen on the Book Lovers Hangout facebook page on International Mother Language Day (21 Feb) at 1:30pm (South African time).

On the same, page on Saturday, well discuss reading and writing in our Mother tongue (specifically indigenous African languages).

On the Black Letter  Media  facebook page, we invite you to share, short excerpts from your family / clan “praise poems” – izibongo, diboko, dipako (also share wit us what the correct word is in your mother tongue).


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