My tailor is rich… but my English is poor

The little kid is sitting on the ground, staring at his knees. He is shy, I am told. Does not like to speak to strangers. Cannot really speak French.

Since the parents separated, the mother moved back to the German speaking part of Switzerland. “The school counselor told me I have to stop confusing him by speaking my dialect. So now I have to speak only French when he visits and then he goes to school in German.” He looks sad but eager to do the right thing for his child.

His ‘dialect’? Bambara. An actual language, spoken by up to 15 million people in Mali and several neighbouring countries. A language with a rich literary tradition, maintained over centuries through griots. The language of a an ancient kingdom. The reason he should refrain to speak it in order not to confuse the child? Swiss German.

“Actually, I thought Swiss German is a dialect, while Bambara is a language…” He laughs at my observation. He laughs because he understands the implications. He laughs because he had not looked at things that way. He laughs because he realises that how we value languages is essentially a matter of perspective. And from my perspective, my tailor is rich.

Just like my tailor, thousands of parents whose mother tongue does not have the required economic, cultural or political capital refrain from communicating with their own children in the language that is closest to their heart and encapsulates their being. I have observed this in practice among diasporic communities in Europe (whether Congolese, Cameroonian, or Vietnamese) and among elites in capitals of the “Global South”.

The issue is far from straightforward. Western linguists are often eager to promote the use of African languages (in Africa), for example in primary education. There is of course a case to be made for educating children in a language they actually understand (duh…). I can imagine the uphill battle primary school teachers are facing in countries that try to enforce English or French as official language of instruction from grade one. The puzzled faces of first graders who understand nothing the lady in front of the blackboard is telling them. Who are told off when asking a question in the language they can speak and that they know their teacher understands. Hopefully by week two they get the basics and by month three they can repeat sentences. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes this eloquently in his Decolonising the Mind. The language of the home, the language of school, the language of the self and of otherness.

I can furthermore imagine the plight of primary school teachers who, sometimes from one day to the next, are told that the language of instruction is now “mother tongue”. How to translate the teaching materials from English into Dholuo or Maasai? Hey lady, we never said teaching was an easy job. You just take care of it. Acha kulalamika.

Mother tongue education is one of these things where we as Europeans tend to make quick judgements, based on our own intuition of linguistic rights and wrongs. Of course children should be instructed in their mother tongue. Of course one needs to promote minority languages. How can this even be controversial? And yet, in today’s Sub-Saharan Africa, the intuitive answer is not always the right one. In today’s economy, native speakers of German and native speakers of Kikamba do not have the same opportunities. Not all mother tongues are created equal. A good mastery of English or French will open doors that remain shut to those who “only” master endogenous African languages. Sometimes the difference between those in managerial positions and those in long-term unemployment boils down to what they speak and how they pronounce it. Where English is a source of considerable symbolic capital, Received Pronunciation is the cherry on top. While this is not a good thing, it is a reality for millions of people.

In order to gradually change this state of affairs, the promotion of language diversity and mother tongue instruction makes sense. Not surprisingly, many governments have been promoting exactly this. At individual level, however, those parents who have the possibility (i. e. the money) to choose will decide to send their child to the kind of school that they think offers her or him the best opportunities. Individuals want to survive in the society they live in, not in a Utopian future that might materialize but probably never will. More often than not, the very same ministers who promote mother tongue education in rural areas send their children to expensive private schools where English (or French) is the only language of instruction. Mother tongue education and minority languages for the poor, international curricula with instruction in large languages for the rich. The language game obeys the same rules than many phenomena, well understood by any scholar who studies society: the interests of the individual and those of the group often run counter to each other.

In the West, we read statistics such as “One language dies every two weeks” and we are convinced that something should really be done about this. We read that people are losing their traditions, and we feel concerned. And yet, human beings everywhere in the world strive for happiness and a better life for their children. While we are wedded to our respective culture and tradition, we are often willing to embrace new languages, new religions and new ideologies in order to enjoy better living conditions. In the age of cultural relativism, we sometimes tend to forget that, while all cultures are fundamentally valuable in their own right, structural inequalities mean that, from a very pragmatic point of view, different cultures have different market values.

In today’s world, my tailor will be rich if his English is not poor.

Nevertheless, language mastery is a not a binary, it is not 1 or 0. As has been argued for instance by Borchgrevink (2003), a limited mastery of a language can already make a great difference in helping us to establish trust, build relationships, become part of a group. While perfect mastery of all languages present in a family or city is not a realistic goal in most contexts, artificially limiting a child’s exposure to a language that would normally be present in their environment strikes me as equally impractical.

The question of mother tongue vs. official language might best be answered with a question: “Why not both?

*If you do not understand the title of this post, click here: Arte Carambolage – My Tailor is Rich

Cited References:

Borchgrevink, A. (2003), ‘Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters’, Ethnography 4(1), 95-121.

Author: CarmenDelgado

I’m a trained translator (MA), Conference interpreter (MA), Interpreter trainer (MAS) and researcher (PhD, University of Geneva) with an interest in development anthropology, ethnography and technology.

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