Tuesday 18 May 2021
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The case of English in Namibia

Placed on a podium and yet, blamed for doing what should be done on the podium

The lack of interest and love for our indigenous languages; the increased number of indigenous Namibians who are unable to speak, and lack interest in the use of their native languages and the lack of growing our indigenous languages are commonly blamed on the prominence of the English language within the Namibian linguistic landscape. To begin with, it is not uncommon in our country to find citizens regarding speaking indigenous languages as a sign of weakness, inferiority, uneducatedness; and of recent a sign of tribal eccentricity. The latter is even alluded to by distinct high office bearers in Government, who publicly declare that to build “the Namibian house” we need to use English (only), because if we use our individual indigenous (ethnic) languages we are promoting “tribalism”. I leave this one here.
In Namibia, the English language is fortunately highly celebrated. While it is a foreign language and of course our official language and a language of wider communication and commerce, English continues to play key roles in our beloved society. One, it is a language which enables us to communicate with each other within this multilingual and multicultural society, as well as with the wider global village. Two, it is one language most preferred than other languages; including our own indigenous languages. Therefore I say, there is nothing wrong with English. What the English language does, is to perform the roles given it and occupy the space allocated for it (does what should be done when placed on the podium all alone).
At independence, the Government of the Republic of Namibia adopted English as an official language, a language of wider communication and a language of instruction in schools. This was done through the language policy which was adopted soon after independence, as a means to meet societal needs in a newly independent Namibia. In deciding to make English the official language, the Government was guided by several understandings.
Two such understandings are that the official language should be 1. A medium of cultural transmission, 2.  A language of international connections, NOT foreign cultural domination (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1993). These two understandings differ from what transpired on the ground with regard to implementing English as a language of instruction and an official language; especially in relation to indigenous languages use, uplifting and maintenance (The portion allocated for indigenous languages as per language policy and the relationship they share with English, will be further discussed as a single subject; for today we leave it here).  Notice the element in the above understandings… a medium of cultural transmission… Whose culture do we want to promote with English? In my understanding, language is part of a culture of its given speakers, and we promote culture by the use of the language of a specific ethnic divide/group. The second understanding is that English be A language of international connections, NOT foreign cultural domination… The last part here is of distinct interest, in my view. It was intended that with the English language we should not promote foreign cultural domination.
What I want to mention here is that, as long as you own and use a foreign language you are inevitably promoting a foreign culture, and in many events foreign domination. Remember that language is a medium of cultural transmission and power. No language promotes a culture different from that of its native speakers. That is why a distinct African writer/novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya opted to begin to write in Kikuyu around the 1970s, as can surely be agreed, for political reasons. His essay “Decolonising the mind” speaks volumes.
Yes, we are aware that more value is placed on the English language. But let me be quick to say here that, the value placed on English, is so done by us, not by itself. It shows who we are, what we regard our own and others’.  Indigenous languages on the other hand, are faced with so many shifts as currently observed from their use, to the use of English. In line with the latter, the likelihood of language “desertion” for our indigenous languages is foreseen if nothing is done to stop this trend. Many of our children and youth do not speak, understand and even care about their native languages. This is not their fault, it is what we made them to see, believe and understand.
The onus, therefore, of reversing the on-going trend of indigenous languages polarisation due to English preference lies within mother tongue speakers. There is need for (it is up to) individual speakers to preserve and retain their languages which are carriers of their heritage, culture and identity as a people; so that these languages do not completely disappear. Remember that when a language disappears, dies, extinct, it does so with the culture, values and even the cultural education and artefacts of its speakers.
While the decline of the Namibian indigenous languages is blamed on the English language many critics and language scholars have taken a different stance regarding this issue in recent times. They argue that the blame for the decline and at times stagnation of our indigenous languages should instead be placed on the people themselves for not doing much to maintain, develop and promote their own languages. We should stop blaming English for our lack of interest in our own languages and start to find ways to make our languages equally enticing and grow them.
It is common that one observes pathetically situations where speakers cannot consistently express themselves in their native (indigenous) language without borrowing word(s) or phrases from English. Such speakers seem to be comfortable with this trend, therefore perceive it as normal. Mention be further made that, to many Namibians, English is regarded as the language of status, of the educated and the privileged. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about our indigenous languages. Therefore, one should not be surprised to find speakers of the same language, (let us say Oshiwambo), speaking to each other in English instead of doing so in Oshiwambo even if it is in unofficial contexts.
Many Namibians rarely speak their native languages, but English. The question I want to ask is; does this have to do with the status placed on the English language? The answer is yes, and this has everything to do with us who placed English that high, and not with English itself. Speaking English is mistakenly equated with being educated and civilised. At times using indigenous languages is prohibited, discouraged or just ignored. It is looked down upon. English is accorded a higher status over and above indigenous languages, and yet blamed for the current stagnating status of our indigenous languages.
When he was honoured with an honorary doctorate from the University of Namibia, a successful business man Frans Aupa Indongo, made his reception speech in Otshikwambi. Many of his audience in the graduation ceremony including those who can understand Oshiwambo did not want to listen to what he was saying simply because he was not speaking English. Does this mean that we feel, and come to believe that our own languages; and therefore we are inferior? Do we want to say that, unless an individual can express him/herself in English, his/her views should and shall go unheard?
Going back to the situation in our local schools. Scholars such Harleck Jones recommend the use of local languages in classrooms, for teachers to help learners understand difficult concepts; teachers never do this; if they do, they will be labelled that they are teaching kids in the vernacular language and might even lose their jobs. I can frankly mention here that there is a worrisome trend of the decline and stagnation in the use and advancemnet of indigenous languages or half use thereof, a trend which needs to be reversed. Blame it on us and not on the English language.

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