It is true and sad that two Ugandans who cannot speak English can meet and fail to communicate effectively, something that is very rare among our neighbours in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Language barrier is a real problem in Uganda. While the countries which make up the East African Community are getting closer, the language barrier still hinders communication between individuals and even institutions, especially from Uganda.
What is a language?
The English word ‘language’ comes from the Latin ‘lingua’ which means ‘tongue’. It is an organized system of words and locutions or expressions which people of a given community use to express themselves and to communicate among themselves. A language is learned either through hearing or acquisition of its grammar, i.e. a system of reading, writing and speaking and understanding a given language correctly.
While animals are incapable of learning expressions that do not belong to their species, humans can learn more than one language, and can express themselves using different systems. Spoken languages are typical of human beings.
As human beings, our vocal system is adjusted mainly to the first language or languages. This is the reason why children learn foreign languages and speak them without accent while adults need a lot of effort and talent to speak a foreign language the way its original speakers do. Children’s tongues are more flexible; they adjust to sound systems more easily than adults but many a times, the imperfections of pronunciation and even of grammar do not greatly hinder the main function of languages which is communication.
Language is a vehicle of thought, unity and enrichment
Human beings do not only think; they communicate what they think by putting their thoughts into words and expressions familiar to people around them. Language is therefore an instrument of unity. Just think of what happens when, far away from your homeland, you find people who speak your mother tongue!
Every language has a package of wisdom in form of figures of speech, stories, proverbs, wise sayings and myths coming from a subtle form of life experience. Learning other languages enriches the human person with the life experiences coming from other cultures.
The capacity to learn a language is the proof that human beings are social by nature. By extension, humanity as a whole is destined to be one large family and communication is one of the principal instruments for that destination. This is the reason why some languages are becoming world languages.
National and Regional Languages
In the mid-70s, there was a debate meant to choose a national language from the many Ugandan languages. The only good thing which came out of it was that the list of languages drawn showed Ugandans how rich they are linguistically. The goal was not achieved because Ugandans were trying to do the impossible. National and official languages are not chosen, they are imposed! Ugandans did not choose English as their official language.
It was imposed on them by their colonisers as Portuguese was imposed on Angolans and Mozambicans as their official and national languages. Try to see how Kiswahili became the national language of Kenya and Tanzania. Amharic was imposed by the ruling class of Ethiopia and Spanish and Portuguese were imposed on Latin Americans by invaders… to mention but a few. The imposition as such is unfair but the fact of millions of people speaking one language is very positive.
In the quest for the national language of Uganda, Kiswahili was dismissed as a foreign language although it was already being written on our bank notes! It is still there! Many Ugandans have a hatred for Kiswahili because the British established it as the language of the army, the police and the prisons. It was and still is the language of institutions whose history is not very clean in Uganda. Some people still see it as a language of thugs, to say the least! Ugandans failed to agree on any single local language citing tribal and regional prejudices.
Another obstacle for choosing a national language for Uganda is the very nature of the local languages in Uganda: Nilotic, Bantu and Nilo-hamitic. Since the vast majority of Ugandans live in their tribal areas, it would be difficult for people to learn a language which is completely different from their own and which is not spoken at all in their area.
One can now see the reason why national and regional languages are usually imposed; no one would freely exchange one’s language for another. There are languages that are learned out of convenience: traders and people working on sugar and tea plantations, being heterogeneous, tend to speak what we call the lingua franca but such languages rarely become national languages because the learned elite usually despise them.
Kiswahili, the Regional Language of Eastern Africa
Swahili comes from ‘sawahil’. It means ‘people of the coast’. It originated from the eastern coast of Africa and spread throughout eastern Africa through trade, especially slave trade. It is a Bantu language with a lot of vocabulary from Arabic and a few words from English, Portuguese and German. It has become one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, having speakers from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, D.R. Congo and pockets of Central and Southern Africa.
Up-country Swahili is rather poor in vocabulary and expression but official Kiswahili is a very rich language especially as it draws scientific vocabulary from Arabic and from a number of African languages. Already, most of the Ugandan languages, if not all, have incorporated Kiswahili words. Many names of things we did not have before contact with the outside world, apart from those derived from English, were taken from Kiswahili while others came from Arabic and Portuguese via Kiswahili: chai, saa, sabuni, gari, kitabu, sukari, meza, sapato…are but a few examples. The fact that there is no Swahili tribe in Uganda should not suffice to call Kiswahili foreign.
Kiswahili is here to stay. The East African Community is coming back with Kiswahili as the language of the common man. Unlike English, Kiswahili is not limited to the learned few. It bridges the communication gap between the learned and those who did not have the privilege of going far with school. It facilitates communication among people belonging to different ethnic groups and social classes; it strengthens the national identity which is very much needed in Uganda and it is free from tribal and regional prejudices…..it contributes to the building of the nation. It will consolidate the unity of the East African nations.
When it enters deep into the education system, Kiswahili will bring with it the wisdom and history of the Afro-Middle Eastern region.
By Fr. Kanyike Mayanja Edward, MCCJ