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Mother tongue essential to foster education

As the celebrations for International Mother Language Day kick off today in various parts of the world to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, UNESCO research backed by other scientific studies has shown that children who know their mother tongue can relate better to learning and excel more in education.

The Acting Deputy Secretary General in charge of Research, Partnership, and Resource Mobilisation at the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, Joel Ongoto, said that research has shown that young people who know their indigenous language can relate to issues in the environment better, they can learn their culture well, and they acquire other school-learned languages better than those that do not know their mother tongue.

UNESCO has designated Mother Language Day to be a very important event for young people to know, speak, and appreciate their mother tongue for the benefit of sustainable development.

Ongoto, who celebrated Mother Language Day with the Suba and Kuria communities drawn from Migori and Homa Bay counties at the Migori Teacher’s Training College (TTC), acknowledged that some of the Kenyan languages from minority tribes like the Subas have been diminishing with time, and the work of UNESCO is to help preserve and promote this diminishing linguistic identity for cultural diversity.

A Suba traditional musician singing in the Suba language during a mother tongue event that brought together the Suba and Kuria communities at Migori Teacher’s Training College. UNESCO has designated Mother Language Day to be a very important event for the young people to know, speak, and appreciate their mother tongue for the benefit of sustainable development. Photo by Geoffrey Makokha.

He noted that Kenya’s Commission for UNESCO mandate is to ensure that the young people get to learn and appreciate their mother tongue heritage for the preservation of the indigenous languages as a future reference for the next generation.

Ongoto explained that the UNESCO mandate is about peace and sustainable development, including intellectual dialogue about preserving indigenous languages.

He emphasised that a people without a language will lose their culture and identity, and therefore, it was important to help promote our African culture, heritage, and language to realise sustainable development in the country.

“There is no harm in knowing your language, and that is why the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) has a whole discipline referred to as indigenous language to enable primary school learners to learn the language in their area or locality to enable them to relate easily to issues in their surroundings,” explained Ongoto.

He urged the learning institutions to put  more resources into research on areas of indigenous languages to preserve and promote endangered languages for the sustainable development of the nation.

The official, however, cautioned those that link tribalism and indigenous languages, saying that the negative connotation is only in people’s minds that tend to promote ethnicity to suit their selfish agendas.

He emphasised that UNESCO works to remove exclusion, discrimination, and negative connotations by fostering unity so that our language diversity can act as our common strength.

Rongo University Lecturer, James Marwa, acknowledged that the surrounding environment in the learning growth of a child resonates easily and well with the mother tongue, especially during the learning process.

Marwa elaborated that parents are the gatekeepers of the indigenous language, which should be passed on to their children for language continuity.

Stephen Ouma, a Suba from Migori and a retired Chief from Migori speaking during a mother tongue event that brought together the Suba and Kuria community at Migori Teacher’s Training College. He disclosed that the geographical location, the dominant Luo tribe in Suba areas, and the intermarriage between the Luos and Subas have greatly contributed to the diminishing Suba languages in Migori and Homabay Counties. Photo by Geoffrey Makokha.

The educationist emphasised the need to use the mother tongue as a positive language in explaining the traditions and cultures of society as well as helping to shun retrogressive ones like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) among the Kuria community.

Jonathan Matiko, a Kurian elder, elaborated that the use of the Kuria language to educate children through ceremonies like birth, initiation, and marriage has helped to preserve the language.

However, he noted that a large number of the new generation of Kurians have not yet embraced the language because their parents never passed on the etymology.

Meanwhile, Stephen Ouma, a Suba from Migori and a retired Chief, disclosed that the geographical location, the dominant Luo tribe in Suba inhabited areas, and the intermarriage between the Luos and Subas have greatly contributed to the diminishing Suba language in Migori and Homa Bay Counties.

Ouma explained that during President Moi’s era, the identity of the Suba community had to be protected and preserved through the creation of two divisions, namely Suba East and West. The two divisions were then converted into a Constituency in Homa Bay County.

In addition, George Wakaka, the Coordinator of the Suba/Kuria alliance, pointed out that in 2000, UNESCO recognised that 13 languages, among them the Suba etymology, were in danger of disappearing, hence the need for their preservation.

Wakaka explained that the Suba dialectal is not one of the Luo languages as people have projected it but instead a relative dialectal to Abakuria and closely related to the Abagusii linguistic.

The official also highlighted that since 2018, 12 books that explain the Suba language, customs, traditions, and cultures have been developed and written.

He applauded the efforts by UNESCO in partnering with the local minority communities in Kenya to preserve the endangered languages.

“Language is the custodian of all the things in the environment of a community or a society, and any failure to preserve the indigenous language of a people will make them slaves to others,”  concluded Wakaka.

By Geoffrey Makokha

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