The Importance Of A People’s Language

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Many years ago, I learned that “Language is the expression of our thoughts in words”. It is the way we say or write our thoughts. Language is the vehicle by which people communicate their culture to people of other cultures as well as the means by which the traditions of any group of people are handed down from one generation to another. Language is to a culture as the nucleus of a cell is to its existence. Remove the nucleus and the cell dies. Put another way, a language is to a culture as the heart is to the human body.

Extract a person’s heart and he/she ceases to exist as a living being. A language dies when it is not spoken, written, and taught for the communication of ideas and flow of information to those they are intended for. A dead language leads to the decline (or death) of a culture. I think that all African-Liberian languages are slowly but surely on the verge of dying. Why? Although there is no reliable statistics available, not quite 5% of African-Liberians can read and write their various languages.

For speaking it, except those who were born and bred in the counties or regions that are the natural homes of the various ethnic groups, many contemporary adults and youth who hail from those counties but reside outside of them cannot speak let alone read and write them. This will certainly result to the death of their languages and cultures if remedial measures are not taken. 

Failure to teach the language and ignorance of its importance 

On the other hand, the failure of African-Liberian parents/guardians as well as persons who are knowledgeable about the culture to teach or provide the opportunity for their children or wards to learn (read & write) the language could cause it to die out. Moreover, it seems some contemporary African-Liberian youths do not want to have anything to do with their languages and cultures. There are two reasons for this attitude:

1. Ignorance – This is evidenced by their lack of knowledge about the power and importance of their language and culture to their existence.

2. Shyness – The misleading belief that they will be considered uncivilized, illiterate, and unsophisticated by others, particularly Americo-Liberians is to blame for this sad and lamentable attitude. Another unpardonable and inexcusable dimension to this problem is the excuse that contemporary African-Liberian children who were born outside their parents’ county of origin reside in communities where their mother tongue is not the language widely spoken. For the same reason, they seem reluctant to practice their culture fully or partly. It is admirable that children born of parents of other African nationals, for example, the Fulas, Ghanaians, Nigerians, etc., speak their mother tongues and along with their parents, practice other aspects of their various cultures.

This renders the African-Liberian excuse as senseless and unacceptable. Furthermore, children of non-Africans, for example, Indians, Pakistani, Lebanese, etc. that were born in Liberia, reside and attend school there are taught their cultures and languages by their parents within the first five years of their birth so that by the time they start schooling, they are already speaking their mother tongues as well as learning the traditions and other cultural elements of their people. The problem described herein is a national one. In terms of reading and writing, no ethnic group in the country is exempt from this setback.

It is so disgusting and disturbing to hear some ethnic Liberian youth and some adults as well say “I don’t speak that thing” when members of their ethnic background engage them in conversations or discussions. This article is not meant to blame anyone; but it is good to that the fact be stated. The situation of some Liberians being shy of speaking their native African languages started with the coming of freed slaves from America and re-captives who settled in the country more than 180 years ago. Brainwashed by their slave masters that Africans and everything associated with them unworthy, and valueless, and that Black people are inferior to Caucasians, the settlers despised the natives they met in what came to be known as Liberia.

To date, many settler descendants still hold on to such misleading and divisive belief as is manifested in their behavior towards native African-Liberians if you may. For more than one and a quarter century members of settler stock governed the country and were in full charge of its economy. Because of this, life for them was rosy because they had everything. To be like them, one had to obtain a decent education and then find his way into the social class they created. One way the African-Liberians did this was by some of them sending their children to Americo-Liberian families to serve as domestic servants so as to be “civilised” in the western sense, and be educated. Another method that some African-Liberians employed was to get married in America-Liberian families in order to be assimilated into their community.

The marriages were both ways. That is, either an African-Liberian male would marry a woman from the settler stock or vice versa. In such relationships, the couple spoke English only and so the children born in such mixed marriages also spoke only English; and it was forbidden for any African-Liberian child who lived with them to speak his/her mother tongue in the home because doing so was considered uncivilized and the guardian parents did not want their civilized children to become uncivilized. An older cousin of mine once told me how his Americo-Liberian guardian slapped him terribly in the ear for speaking Glebo (Grebo) to one of his brothers who had gone to visit him at the home where he lived with his guardian in Harper, Maryland County, Liberia. I think that this mind set and attitude of the Americo-Liberian/settler community is largely responsible for African-Liberians not taking their languages and cultures serious and by extension, for the country not having an indigenous national language, dress, and meal. For a deeper insight into these assertions, please read “THE EVOLUTION OF DEADLY CONFLICTS IN LIBERIA” by Dr. Jeremy I. Levitt. 

When Europeans, Asians, and other Africans assemble at social or informal gatherings, groups of people converse in the language that is common to each group in as much what they discuss does not concern members of any of the other groups present. For example depending on language groups present, the Yorubas speak in their language, the Italians, Germans, French, and British, and so on do likewise. Then, why are some Liberians so gullible to divisive and deceptive orientation that they shy away from their language and culture? In order to avert the death of Liberian languages and decline of its cultural heritage, all Liberians should take pride in their natural identities. I thank God and, I am proud for Him making me a Glebo because He knows why He made me so. I urge every African-Liberian to be proud of his/her mother tongue and cultural heritage.

Step towards unification and integration

More than half a century and five years have gone by since the unification and integration policy were enunciated by President William V. S. Tubman. Yet, the country does not have an indigenous national language and dress. Therefore English, both standard and colloquial is spoken by about 85% of the population. Consequently, as there is no indigenous national language, if there is need to discuss a confidential matter between any two or more Liberians of different ethnic backgrounds and there are persons around who the conversation or discussion does not concern, they are compelled to step aside from the group before they can discuss; and they do it in English as it is Liberia’s official language. Unarguably, President William Richard Tolbert, Jr. apparently desired that the country adopts an indigenous language as our national language. Although of settler descent, he spoke in the Kpelle language at some point in his inaugural address in 1971. Following that address, there were suggestions that Kpelle be adopted as the country’s indigenous national language. Forty-eight years since that address, it remains to be seen whether or not Liberians have appetite for an indigenous national language as is the case in some of her sister countries.

Confidentiality, unification, and integration

As a people, we need an indigenous national language so that Liberians would not have to step aside when in the midst of non-Liberians before they discuss confidential matters. Moreover, it will bind us together as one people, as well as facilitate the share of information and for many other purposes.

Recommendations

A national referendum should be held to choose an African-Liberian language as the country’s national language as well as choose our national dress and meal;

The language that would be chosen in the referendum should be the first language to be taught to children when they start school; and should be seriously taught up to the 12th grade;

The National Legislature should pass an Act that would make the African-Liberian language a national language and mandate the Ministry of Education to ensure that the language is included in the curriculum as a major language. That is, any student earning a failing mark in it in the yearly average MUST repeat it the following academic year. In fact, it should be among the subjects for all grades until the completion of high school;

As is the case with major Nigerian languages that are offered in WAEC exams, it should also be written in WAEC exams;

In order to make learning of the language interesting and appealing to students, the following strategies should be employed:

Students should be recognized and rewarded for proficiency in the language by giving them prizes (financial or material), financial assistance or scholarship;

Students scoring the highest average in the language at each school should be put on government scholarship for at least one academic year;

The student(s) who score the highest national average every academic year should be put on government scholarship;

The Ministry of Education (MOE) in collaboration with school authorities should host dramas and debates in the language amongst schools on competitive basis, with persons well versed in the language serving as judges during the dramas and debates that should to be televised.

Note: 

The truth is often misconstrued and taken out of context. I firmly believe in the oneness and cohesion of the Liberian people. Based on my belief, I have no intention to do anything that has the propensity to disunite the Liberian people. Many things went wrong in this country, some of which were the root causes of our civil war. Like any country, the history of Liberia is a collection of accounts about our attitudes, various activities, actions, and events. The issue addressed above is just one of the many things that make up our history. For a people to know their destiny, they must be informed by their history. Knowing our history will help us change our negative mindset and attitudes.

All-natural Liberians are indigenous Liberians. To avoid confusion and for the purpose of distinguishing the two groups of Liberians, I used the compound terms “African-Liberians” and “Americo-Liberians. The former group refers to the people that the latter group met here when they arrived in the 1800s.

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