Few months back I was traveling from the war torn North West to the equally war torn South West region of Cameroon and something that is very common happened; I am a frequent traveler. This made me remember the many other past incidents.
A young man stopped our vehicle; he was well armed and wasn’t in a good mood at all. He asked us to present ourselves, which we did, but he wasn’t convinced. “If you claim to be…, say something in your mother tongue,” he said. Everyone said “something” and we were allowed to continue our journey. What gave us the pass? The mother tongue of the areas we said we came from. The reason why it all happened isn’t our focus.
In a typical Sub-Saharan context, the mother tongue has a way of influencing the outcome of many interactions among locals. Interestingly, the bond at times is so strong that just by revealing that you can speak a seller’s mother tongue, you can be given a discount. Strange right? That’s how serious a mother tongue can be in this part of the world.
The mother tongue, also known as the native language in some other context, is the language a person has been exposed to from birth. Cameroon has its own specificities as we have a diverse group of people who speak diverse languages, so it’s common to see people who speak either English or French and an indigenous language. As such, code-switching and code-mixing have become the norm in many families and the society at large. Sometimes, there’s a particular language used for certain activities or to discuss certain subjects. There’s an acquaintance who uses English at home when he is upset and the mother tongue when he is gay.
However, in such multilingual contexts where we have official languages which were introduced by colonialism, the native language or mother tongue generally comes last on the scale of preference or importance. This is because colonialism and now globalization have had a toll on us. Also, the false notion that one language is superior to the other has left its effects.
Linguists on our local languages (and keen observers) have noted that enough hasn’t been done to show the importance of the mother tongue and to ensure that the languages don’t die in the near future. This has subtly empowered official languages to the detriment of the latter. Jobs are now reserved for those who are fluent in the English or French language. This is a bit disturbing because the language requirement(s) are being demanded in communities where effective communication sometimes only occurs when the mother tongue of the community is used.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of the mother tongue in a home, a linguistic community or a foreign land. It gives some uniqueness, originality and a genuine feeling of belonging. Imagine a Cameroonian asking for directions in a crowded and busy street in Moscow just for her to hear two people behind her discussing in a familiar language and accent known to the people of her place of origin.
This is why it is important for us to ensure the continuity of our mother tongues even in homes where the parents come from different backgrounds. This implies the children’s exposure to more than one mother tongue. This is advantageous as a continuous exposure to the languages entails a good acquisition of the said languages. An example is the white missionary who settled in Kumbo some years back. The child they had in Kumbo, now an adult, is fluent in a couple of languages: English, Pidgin English, Lamnso’ and other languages. His stay in Kumbo exposed him to Lamnso’ and Pidgin English so much so that the community regarded him as part of it and vice versa. If the contemporary young people are not encouraged to take time to learn and/or acquire their native language(s), then the outcome will be obvious. No one can transmit unto the other what he/she doesn’t have.
Despite the effects of globalization and the disappearance of a good number of indigenous languages and the emergence of situations where people’s first languages are foriegn or official languages like it’s the case in many African countries today, the mother tongue is still tied to the origins of a person. No matter how good some people are in a foreign language, they can’t really consider it as a mother tongue. A Wimbum man who cannot speak Limbum is like a German who cannot speak German. This means that the mother tongue has a lot to do with origins than with the language one grew up with. None can completely dissociate himself from the mother tongue. Who can dissociate himself from his birth origin? Nobody.
The mother tongue will always be special to most people. There are some concepts in our mother tongues that cannot be conveyed in another language without losing something to it. This goes to show that language is an essential part of our identity. It curves our tongues and gives us an accent and makes us unique in our own way. If we promote our mother tongue, there will come a time when people will speak, write and read these languages and will not have to apologize for having heavy accents when speaking a foreign language.