Language as communication tool versus national identity

By Jean Ngendahimana
On 6 February 2019 at 01:29

It is only on the African continent where the Francophone or English phone tags are still apparent, a sign ‘culture domination’ embedded in neocolonialism. The Bible, a book which many Rwandans believe to be truthful and holly, sheds light on the politics of language in the ancient world. In the book of Daniel (1:3) there is a story of King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who told his chief Chamberlain to bring in some of the Israelites of Royal blood and of the nobility, four young men without any defect, handsome, intelligent and wise, quick to learn and prudent in judgement, such as could take their place in the King’s palace; they were to be taught the language and literature of the Chaldeans.

Among them was one outstanding man, Daniel, who understood King Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions of teaching them his language and eat his food. In other words, you can only influence people’s life, only if you can control how they communicate and what they eat. Nevertheless, without undermining the current globalization trends and how important foreign languages are in international affairs, I would argue that language and food are the current neocolonialism tools in Africa at different levels. Daniel clearly understood the two dimensions of a language and he was aware that the King carried it as his national identity to dominate Daniel’s people who were brought to Babylon as slaves and it would be blind for him to conceive it differently.

To build on this, in his book ‘Decolonizing the mind’, the politics of language in African literature, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O who refers to Chinua Achebe previous work agree that the relationship between the colonial master and the slaves is more or less embedded in the language. Obviously, this relationship is subtle and could not be understood simply through personal opinions. It is a very complex issue that needs a multi-dimension tool to untangle it in a very comprehensive approaches of the past colonialism effects on our way of life.

It is in this regards, decolonizing the mind should make us reflect on why despite having a country with our national language Kinyarwanda, English is still dominant in our political, administration and education structures. The answer might be quick for those who have rarely encountered the critic concepts of English use as language politics, the construction process of a nation-state and social development, without assessing how active they are (foreign languages) in uprooting our national and cultural identity, economy, arts, and development.

Why should English be a key criterion in determining the winner of Miss Rwanda, an event in Rwanda by Rwandans for the Rwandans?

This is the question that Mr. Kigenza Rogers would be responding to in his opinion entitled ’OpEd: Miss Rwanda Pageants Must Be Able to Speak English Fluently. However, the author fails to reflect on why, despite English being a key criterion for one to be elected as Miss Rwanda, the previous ones who represented the country abroad on different occasions have failed to bring any single award so far.

This simply means that English should not even be given such a platform in our national affairs that Mr. Kigenza Rogers seems to claim.

In contrast to many unfounded claims, there are no facts available to suggest that English or French language would have any direct single value added in our economies. Rather, it is my idea that they make us vulnerable in our own economy. For Example; when you make the English language as a key requirement to get hired in a local job, based in Rwanda by Rwandans and serving Rwandans, you are not only denying your own identity but you are also demotivating your personnel growth. The result would be to see the increase of foreigners, who master the same language seizing decent jobs on expense of locals, which in the end has an effect on capital flight.

Let’s take an example of China to illustrate further how a language carries national identity features. In this country, a minister does not need to speak English or French to be in that position. Even when he speaks it, he still uses interpreters to support his/her communication while on international missions. Obviously, China does this consciously, she is aware that the pride and the brand of a nation-state in its national culture and language; what it is capable to produce and trade. In this direction, I would agree that the more you speak and make those popular foreign languages your internal main communication channels, subconsciously, it means culture domination. This comes with a lot of effects on the identity, economy and dignity representation. It is indeed irrational to see a public event where Rwandans are the majority audience, being conducted in English. This makes me wonder who the event is addressing to. English people or Rwandan?

If one’s response to those above questions, quickly, he/she will realize that English does not make even our communications better in that scenario, instead it has a lot of other negative implications. Therefore, I fully subscribe to Dr. Christoher Kayumba opinion published on twitter that ’ English should be banned in Miss Rwanda’ future events. While I strongly agree with his opinion, Perhaps, I will suggest it to be banned in all public events where the majority of the audience are Rwandans not only in Miss Rwanda. Having said this, I am aware that there are multiple challenges ahead, since apparently our elite, public figures, scholars and media practitioners seemingly still understand culture sorely in terms of dance and songs.

I will plea those in charge, especially in culture and education policies to start drawing long term strategies to have Kinyarwanda as an instruction language in our future education system, so as in Germany, China, France, UK, Italy, etc. This is the only way we can achieve our cultural independence, literature, economy, innovation and productivity increase in our labor market. It is obviously hard to study, learn, think and innovate in a foreign language you do not master as you would in your mother tongue.

In other words, there is a strong correlation between insufficient innovations, low-quality education, and English or French use as instruction language in African education. For this, I would suggest to Miss Rwanda 2020 organizers, to consider, reflect and think twice on selection criteria for our dignity, kwigira and cultural survival. It is my view that English should be used as a communication tool and must be a personal target for those internationally oriented. However, it should not be institutionalized to be a key criterion in determining who is intelligent and has access to decent opportunities at any level in a nation-state Decolonizing our mind is a process, I would agree. It is highly important, maybe, to mention that, each people’s mother tongue is rich and is perceived as their national identity. The other languages which are officially recognized by the system must be only subject to a communication tool, the opposite would be a cultural alienation.

The author is a Researcher and Graduate in European Migration and Intercultural Relations Studies from Germany. He is a leader in the Germany civil society and a global advocate of migrants and refugees rights.