Preserve your language

I had an interesting chat with a philologist, ‘Mary’, last weekend. Philologist – what an interesting and exotic sounding word, don’t you think? In addition to English, Mary speaks several international languages, e.g. French and Spanish while I only speak English.

While we were chatting, Mary asked what my mother tongue was. I said it is Bemba and informed her that I was not fluent but could get by. Mary further asked whether I can read and write in Bemba. I said not at all but could write broken Bemba if I was forced to. Of course, as a languages expert, Mary was appalled with my Bemba skills or lack thereof. She asked how my mother tongue will be preserved if I could not write it, let alone speak it. I said for me, the most important thing is that a Zambian should be able to speak at least one Zambian language fluently. The language does not have to be one’s mother tongue.

I speak Nyanja, a language widely spoken in the area I grew up in. In fact, people are usually surprised when they learn that my mother tongue is not Nyanja because I am, apparently, very fluent. My situation is actually quite common in Zambia with several people not able to speak their own languages but are fluent in another Zambian language. This is acceptable to me.

Mary did not accept my reasoning and asked who would preserve my language if I did not do so. I said other Bembas and people who are good in the language will be preserve my language. Likewise, I will help preserve Nyanja because that is the language I know. I do not understand Mary’s strong objection to my lack of Bemba skills. Is it because there is only one language where she comes from? Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short and we did not get to fully understand each other’s views. Maybe it was for the best that the conversation was not concluded because we may not have come to an agreement.

I will teach you one word in Bemba, my beautiful mother tongue. It is the singular word of thank you. The word is ‘natasha’. The spelling may be the same as the Russian name but the pronunciation is different.

What do you think about Mary’s stand?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. jedib
    Jul 16, 2014 @ 07:17:03

    Boy, one could have a lengthy conversation about this topic. I suppose ‘Mary’ reacted so strongly because, as a philologist, language is what she deals with and it must be very important to her, otherwise she wouldn’t have made it her prime occupation. That being said, while I do agree that it’s important to preserve languages, I don’t think it’s up to ‘Mary’ to decide who is in charge of preserving which language. That’s overstepping boundaries, in my mind. As you say, coming from a culture with one language, she may also not really understand the complex linguistic situation in Zambia, plus perhaps romanticize the relationship between a person and his/her mother tongue. Also, you live in an entirely different country right now and probably have other things to deal with right now.


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