There are different reasons people learn new languages. Relationships such as inter-cultural marriages, professional opportunities, immigration to name a few, force us to learn new languages. For some of us, it’s something of a fantasy. Watching a polyglot or bilingual speak sparks excitement in our brains. We imagine ourselves being able to speak in different languages as a form of prowess; one capable of winning hearts, blending in different settings and talking ourselves out of complex situations. It’s not far from the truth given the advantages of being bilingual. Some of these I find highlighted in different books I’ve read. While language isn’t exactly the primary subject of these books, they however contain nuggets of beauties involving languages. A few of these are as follows.
This bestseller by the legendary freedom fighter and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela highlights the essence of language in leadership and communication. In one incident, he cites his meeting with the then Queen of Basutoland (now Lesotho) Mantsebo Moshweshwe, where she reprimands him for not being able to communicate in his native language as a budding lawyer and leader.
“What kind of lawyer and leader will you be who cannot speak the language of your own people?” I had no response. The question embarrassed and sobered me; it made me realize my parochialism and just how unprepared I was for the task of serving my people. I had unconsciously succumbed to the ethnic divisions fostered by the white government and I did not know how to speak to my own kith and kin. Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs. I again realized that we were not different people with separate languages; we were one people, with different tongues.”
Another bestseller by talk Tv host of The Daily Show and stand-up comedian, Trevor Noah. This is one hilarious book that I’ve read multiple times. Trevor is a polyglot who speaks German, Afrikaans, Tswana, Zulu, Xhosa among other South African Languages. He mentions how he was able to navigate life by being armed with multiple languages; something he’d learnt from his mother. Here are a few excerpts from his book.
“Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper, right in front of us, turned to his security guard and said, in Afrikaans, “Volg daai swartes, netnou steel hulle iets.” “Follow those blacks in case they steal something.”
My mother turned around and said, in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans, “Hoekom volg jy nie daai swartes sodat jy hulle kan help kry waarna hulle soek nie?” “Why don’t you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they’re looking for?”
“I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
The autobiography of Malcolm X also highlights the late activist’s reflections on languages. His visits to African countries like Ghana and Nigeria in the 50s and 60s highlighted his polyglot dreams. He cites his not being able to communicate with his fellow Africans as a mark of shame. See excerpts below.
“For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don’t know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can’t understand. Especially when they are people who look just like you. In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt.”
Barack Obama’s bestseller is a captivating intersection of his shared American and African heritage. In encounters that seek to reconcile his African heritage via trips to Kenya, meeting with his sister, you get a sense of what languages meant to him and to a large extent its essence. See excerpts below.
I took Auma’s hand and we remained in the car for several minutes, listening to the rain as it slackened. “You asked me what my dream was,” she said finally. “Sometimes I have this dream that I will build a beautiful house on our grandfather’s land. A big house where we can all stay and bring our families, you see. We could plant fruit trees like our grandfather, and our children would really know the land and speak Luo and learn our ways from the old people. It would belong to them.”
It wasn’t simply joy that I felt in each of these moments. Rather, it was a sense that everything I was doing, every touch and breath and word, carried the full weight of my life; that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognize myself as I was, here, now, in one place. Only once that afternoon would I feel that mood broken, when, on our way back from the market, Auma ran ahead to get her camera, leaving Granny and me alone in the middle of the road. After a long pause, Granny looked at me and smiled. “Halo!” she said. “Musawa!” I said. Our mutual vocabulary exhausted, we stared ruefully down at the dirt until Auma finally returned. And Granny then turned to Auma and said, in a tone I could understand, that it pained her not to be able to speak to the son of her son. “Tell her I’d like to learn Luo, but it’s hard to find time in the States,” I said. “Tell her how busy I am.” “She understands that,” Auma said. “But she also says that a man can never be too busy to know his own people.” I looked at Granny, and she nodded at me, and I knew then that at some point the joy I was feeling would pass and that that, too, was part of the circle: the fact that my life was neither tidy nor static, and that even after this trip hard choices would always remain.
A very interesting yet grim account that captures events surrounding the Rwandan genocide, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire as force commander of the UN peace mission to Rwanda just before the war broke out is perhaps one of the best literature on the conflict. A subtle importance of his bilingual state did play out during the conflict as highlighted below.
“Language was a real issue. The RPF delegation, composed mostly of Rwandan refugees who had grown up in English-speaking Uganda, was mostly anglophone, and the Rwandan government representatives were exclusively francophone. I summoned up a lifetime of experience in mediating between the two language groups and expended much energy acting as official translator. I wonder if I might have picked up more of the undercurrents that must have been playing around the negotiating table if I hadn’t been put in that position. Then again, as translator I had to be attentive to every word.”
There you go. What other books would you recommend? I’m always shopping for books to inspire me and some of your recommendations may just inspire the next project beyond the Genii Games app. In case you haven’t checked it out, the Genii Games app is an interactive platform for learning multiple African languages. It currently has in its growing collection, interactive modules to learn conversational Senegalese Wolof, Nigeian igbo, Yoruba, East African Kiswahili, Ghanaian Ewe and Twi langauges. You can download the app via the links below: