Why You Should Teach Your Child Their Mother-tongue

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When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful Malala Yousafzai
Pregnancy & Parenting

Why You Should Teach Your Child Their Mother-tongue

By Agewa Waruguru

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

My mother always insists that when I get children of my own, I should teach them mother tongue, or at least one of the myriad of languages that will be their heritage. “After all,” she says, “how will you be able to talk about people without them knowing?”

I discovered the essence of this statement when I was out shopping with my husband-to- be who doesn’t know any local language other than Kiswahili. I wanted us to haggle for a better price for an item and to tell him that if the shopkeeper didn’t accept our terms we would go to another shop, and I realized that in any language I would tell him this, the vendor would obviously know. I also find myself at a loss when describing things I know in mother tongue that cannot be translated to English or even Kiswahili.

Apart from the benefits one derives such as gossiping about people in their presence and without their knowledge, teaching mother tongue to one’s children is also beneficial to their ability to grasp other languages. When taught their native tongue, children are able to understand the basics and foundations of language hence are able to learn new languages quickly. For example, in Bantu languages such as Kikuyu, Kimeru and Kiluhya, there already exists the subject verb agreement loosely translated from the Kiswahili Ngeli. This concept is easier to understand and apply while learning the Swahili language in school.

In addition to this, mother tongue, which is the first language a baby is exposed to even while in the womb, is the means by which they will learn to express themselves. A child’s thoughts and emotions will be easier to explain if they have a language in which to convey them. Have you experienced an emotion or feeling so intense but lack the word to describe it in English? Chances are high that, that word has been in existence for hundreds of years in your native language. Through our native language, we are able identify with people with whom we share a culture. In this day and age, especially in Kenya, we are moving away from the need to group ourselves into communities and tribes. But the need still remains as this is the only way we can associate with our ancestors and even trace our roots.

Language and culture go hand in hand and those who do not have one lack the other. It is hard for a child to fully fit in when they cannot communicate in the language of their forefathers. Coming from a family with mixed cultures and languages, I have experienced first-hand the challenges that arise when a child is not able to communicate in their mother tongue. My first language was my mother’s and my father’s was taught to me after I had already learned English and Kiswahili. Since I couldn’t apply the same skills and grammar rules from English to a local language, I never quite grasped it fully. I can understand and be understood, but there is always the worry of making a mistake and being made fun of. But I struggled to speak it, and I did.

And I can learn new languages very easily now, just ask my French teacher!

Do not worry that your child will have mother tongue influence if they speak fluent Luo or Kamba, i rarely happens with the improved education systems. You also won’t be ‘shady’ if you teach your child another language. Put in place a language timetable in your homes as part of the learning programme outside the school. Read to your children, tell them stories and discuss things with them in mother- tongue. The most memorable lessons taught are usually in a child’s first language.

So before I embark on teaching my unborn children their mother tongue, I will try very hard to teach it to their father first!

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