Indigenous languages key drivers of development


HARARE – Language is not only a means of communication but it also represents the collective memory of any community or people’s history.

It reflects the people’s interpretation of human experiences continued erosion therefore means the culture and knowledge systems of that particular community draws closer and closer to extinction.

By far, one of the most important topics that the recent Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) tackled was that of indigenous languages and their role in facilitating development.

The importance of indigenous languages has always been downplayed for years immemorial.

One of the major reasons for this attrition of local languages lies in the continent’s colonial history.

The coloniser, in order to ensure complete and total pacification of the African and any other colonised community as such, made it a point that the unity, identity, culture, indigenous knowledge of the colonised underwent systematic obliteration.

These elements were rooted in the languages of the indigenous populations and its destruction or at least denigration became paramount.

The demolition of indigenous cultures through sustained programmes westernisation underlined the resolve of the coloniser.

This would ensure submission and total control by the government.

In the formal schools’ system, the framework heavily tilted against creativity.

People are at their best in terms of creativity when they are allowed to do so in their own languages.

Creativity in indigenous languages also results in diversity and wealth for African local knowledge systems.

Colonialism, coupled with globalisation — which has come pre-packaged with cultural imperialism — have continued to fight the existence of indigenous languages, and thus knowledge systems.

Globalisation has been defined as the stretching of power and communications across the globe — a compression of time and space which have both led to a rearrangement of social relationships leading to societies, cultures, politics and economics coming together.

Many media scholars may have encountered the Nwico debates in the course of their studies, in itself an attempt by the developing world to restructure global communication trends.

The choice of the colonial language as the official language has not fed into the development agenda, especially when measured against a background of sustained acceptance and promotion of modern scientific packages from the West thus leading to dependency, debt and a great disparity in development.

Colonial languages, that is English, French and Portuguese among the major ones, have remained drivers of the accumulation of wealth, socio-economic power and progress in life, which are Western models of individual development and success.

Besides the dominance Shona and Ndebele have enjoyed over other indigenous languages, Zimbabwe has a number of indigenous minority languages most of which have not existed in written form but have remained in the spoken form.

Some of these are: Kalanga, Venda, Tonga, Shangani and Nambya, among others which are usually recognised by those to which they are first languages.

Indigenous knowledge has largely provided the bases of problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the marginalised.

Therefore, it becomes an important component of global development issues.

For instance, local weather and climate patterns have been assessed and predicted by locally-observed variables and experiences using combinations of plants, animals, insects meteorological as well as astrological indicators inherent in indigenous knowledge systems.

If the mother tongue goes into oblivion, conceptual thoughts present in indigenous knowledge systems risk dying with it.

Language provides a powerful means of learning and development and for indigenous languages, riddles, songs, myths and legends were used to cultivate quick thinking creativity and sharpening of memory in young children.

This is largely so because the transmission of knowledge in oral tradition is largely informal and rests on indigenous languages. 

This edition of ZIBF had a notable absentee, Mrewa-based Colleete Mutangadura who reminded participants during ZIBF 2012 that the promotion of indigenous languages lay not only in holding talk shows but in walking the talk.

All her contributions were made in Shona.

She made sure responses to questions thrown in English were in Shona, thus showing the value and strength the indigenous language, in this case Shona, had as a communication tool.

However, this is not to downplay the value of presentations on indigenous languages done in English.
Indigenous knowledge is an element unique to a given culture or community as opposed to that which is gained through the formal education system.

It is that which forms the basis of survival for the people who own that language.

Foreign media products are not only produced in foreign languages but are also laced with cultural and ideological baggage alien to local experiences.

Likewise, the promotion of foreign languages in educational systems of developing societies owing to the imbalance in information flow has not benefitted these particular communities in any way.

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