In our Ugandan society, basic knowledge of English other than for academic purposes is essential to one’s social acceptance and recognition in the community. Speaking in fluent English (let alone the near-perfect accent) will win you a lot of admirers. While still in school, teachers always told us that we will become very successful if we master English, and because of this hope, it was like a determination for us students to become fluent in this foreign language.
Those who failed to speak English were frowned upon, despised, laughed at, and regarded as either stupid, foolish, undeserving, or simply a lower-class people. I also observed this negative trend during my primary school when speaking English within the school grounds was a must and in case you were caught interacting in any native language you’d severely be punished.
These scenarios have always left me bitterly frustrated, not because am poor at English, but because the people who are made to feel inferior due to their broken English have psychologically been forced to look down upon themselves. This brings about social stigma that also leads to continuous withdrawal of oneself from the ‘educated’ society. These people start believing that they’ll never succeed in life, and then they’ll segregate themselves for fear of being heckled and all the ridicules will in no doubt make them feel unworthy. Additionally, many will be held back from contributing towards humanity because they don’t know English and that their voices won’t be heard.
Interestingly, what we don’t know is that these despised people are superb in our own indigenous languages and they command great knowledge of our traditional cultures and history. There are countless examples of today’s ‘uneducated’ but very successful entrepreneurs who have become more useful in our society than the so-called English ‘masters’.
The turbulent times of their youthful life never gave them the opportunity to learn English at school. Do you remember the political instabilities that reigned from 1964-1986? Imagine the academic situation around that time when it was almost impossible for young people by then to attain a better education. There were a few schools than today, there were less trained teachers, school infrastructures were in a bad shape, and above all, poverty levels were at their highest.
We the young people of the dot-com era need to be very thankful to these unsung heroes who despite their poor academic background, still managed to do their best to make it possible for us to attain high-quality education that they never got a chance at. Sadly, these are the very people we are pushing away for not knowing English.
One Saturday evening, I was in a 14-seater taxi heading to my village in Rakai district and one young man was fiercely arguing with an elderly lady (fitting enough to be his grandma) who was only trying to adjust herself in her seat. After a few hot exchanges in Luganda, the young man insulted the unsuspecting elderly lady in English “This is why you’re an uneducated fool, silly”.
As if I predicted what will follow next, all passengers in the taxi burst out laughing at the old lady who appeared to be puzzled at the meaning of the young man’s words in English. As a young man, I felt so ashamed and was about to rebuke the guy but I maintained my composure for fear of getting caught up in the melee. To be honest, I was convinced that this guy gave us a bad reputation as young men, but everyone was laughing so hard and making funny jokes except me and the confused lady. Now this is just one example of the countless cases where we have shamelessly despised and took advantage of those illiterate in English.
The so-called modernity has really spoiled us to the point of under-grading those who don’t know a completely foreign language that was somehow forced upon us! But, before despising someone who doesn’t know English, ask yourself if you would feel ashamed for not knowing either Spanish or French! There’s a traditional Ganda song of Kadongokamu genre by the late Paul Job Kafeero called ‘Olulimi lwange’ (my mother tongue). This song rebukes the young brainwashed 21st generation who proudly brag about their English fluency more than their local languages. The singer also asks if we are either driving in ‘reverse’ or forward due to the alarming rate at which we are ditching the local languages in favor of foreign ones.
But for heaven’s sake, where do you get the pride to brag yourself for being ‘smart’ in English more than your indigenous language? It is said that one’s mother tongue is also an identity of oneself and being poor at it only displays your total ignorance of your roots, your culture and the society in which you grew up. Sometimes I feel that we are being misguided into upholding English as a must-learn language because it isn’t the only major language in the world. There are places you’ll go where the locals don’t use English but just the predominant local languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, French, Dutch, Italian, etc. So, should we also laugh at them for not knowing English? Of course not because that is their culture, but why are we doing that to our own people? Why don’t we endeavor to promote what is ours first before jumping on to alien cultures?
I am clarifying to you that most developed countries with well-off people don’t even use English at all! For example France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, South Korea, China, Japan, etc, do not use English as their native or official language. Let’s not be fooled that everywhere you go you’ll need to use English. This is why we have translation software and personal translators for foreign dignitaries who visit their foreign counterparts.
Unfortunately, in my society those who don’t know English are regarded as being poor, of the lowest class, lazy, uncreative, criminals, backward, illiterate, and not worthy of making any positive contribution towards the society. Can this be true of me since I am living in Kenya where Swahili is the major language and I have no basic knowledge of it? No, I don’t think so.
It is true that English is the most important language of global communication when people who don’t share a native language meet anywhere in the world but should we forget our own mother tongues which are the primary bridges of connection back home? Of course not! The people we are despising for being ‘illiterate’ can teach us a lot about our cultures, history, religion, and many survival skills. Pushing them to the edge because they don’t know English will only bring us endless shame.
The world is opening up at a faster rate than at any point in previous times and we need to communicate with people from the other ends of the globe for trade, diplomacy, sports, education, and tourism. English is just one of the major global languages that has facilitated this global village phenomenon but looking at a larger picture, there’s also a greater need for us to be multilingual because English is spoken in just a few places around the world. Therefore, we need to embrace our cultures and proudly preserve them amidst the threats posed by foreign linguas to extinct our mother tongues. We shouldn’t despise non-English speakers and look at them as being illiterate, backward, criminals, poor, etc. May these shameful habits end now so that everyone can feel equal, and useful to the society…