Embracing our mother tongue

[ Editor’s note: International Mother Language Day was the 21st of February, therefore this piece is a little late to the scene. However, this is an insightful piece that truly celebrates the beauty of languages and the cultures they represent; as well as how advantageous it is to be bilingual.]

Words by: Anisa Abdalle

How do you say abti in English again?

One day my uncle came to pick me up from school when I was in reception. I saw him standing at the door waving at me and motioning for me to come to him. I looked at my teacher silently, wondering how I could communicate to her that my uncle was there to pick me up –  I didn’t know much English. Thoughts were racing in my head: “how do you say abti (uncle) in English again?” Out of pure desperation I started to speak to my teacher in Somali, hoping, praying that she would understand me. Thankfully, my classmate who was also Somali could understand what I was saying and decided to help me.  Whilst the teacher was distracted, he whispered to me “say my uncle is here to pick me up”. I quietly repeated the words to myself and when the teacher looked at me I told her that my uncle was there to pick me up. The teacher smiled brightly at me and said “well done! Your speaking has improved so much” and as a reward she gave me a sticker and told to my uncle what I had said. I remember feeling guilty for deceiving her, but I will never forget that moment of panic when I wasn’t able to communicate myself clearly in a language that seemed so foreign to me.

Despite all the bumps along the road of learning a new language, I survived the journey, and came out the other side. This is largely due to my EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher, who endeavoured to make the task and process of learning a new language fun and engaging. I was in a group with three or four other Somali children, and together we would learn the language in a fun and creative way. For example: one day my EAL teacher told us that we would have to perform ‘head, shoulders, knees, and toes’ in front of the whole class, first in Somali and then in English. These activities helped me learn English rapidly, and to this day I still look back on those memories fondly. It also instilled in me a sense of pride in my language, as I was told to perform in front of the class in Somali and I wasn’t made to feel like I had to discard my mother language to establish a new English-speaking identity.

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International Mother Language Day is a day that promotes linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as multilingualism. Bilinguals and multilinguals possess certain cognitive advantages over monolinguals, and it also increases their competitiveness in the workforce leading to them to higher earnings during their career. Therefore, with all these benefits that come from speaking more than one language, we should promote linguistic diversity and encourage children to embrace their mother tongue. This can be done by providing multilingual education which starts off by teaching children in their mother tongue than later transitioning into an additional language. As a result, the child’s mother tongue is preserved, and they also gain increasing confidence in the language that they are learning.

Unfortunately, many languages are now defunct, as many people no longer speak them. The extent of this is highlighted by a table produced by UNESCO, who published a list of endangered languages and the extent to which they are endangered. This list includes Ulwa, which is a language spoken in New Guinea and has only five hundred speakers. Serious consequences come with the death of a language, such as the loss of cultures, their stories and wisdom that has been passed down through the generations. There should be a call for a revival of those languages now defunct, so that we can continue to enjoy the diversity of cultures and languages that renders our world so complex and beautiful. This should be a serious consideration, as our English language itself has West-Germanic and Latin roots, amongst others.

We cannot exist outside language: without even considering communication, our very essence is based on our mutual understanding of language. It is through our common understanding of language that our world, it its entirety and reality, is shaped. We cannot allow languages to become defunct, as with them we lose culture, and our ability to view the world through the wide variety of beautiful lenses that language enables.

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