When Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o delivered his speech on decolonising the mind in Johannesurg, South Africa, his message ignited much needed dialogue. We decided to share an excerpt from the moving speech so that dialogue continues beyond the borders of South Africa.
“So along with the economic and political empires, Europe simultaneously and consciously created empires of the mind through language ideologies and practices, empires in tune with their world view and practical needs.
They gave us their accents in exchange for their access to our resources. Or let me put it this way: Europe gave Africa
the resources of their accent; Africa gave Europe access to the resources of the continent. So when African intellectuals and leadership were busy perfecting their borrowed accents, Europe and the West were busy sharpening their instruments for access to the resources of the continent. Accents for Access: that, unfortunately, is the story of post-colonial Africa.
Has the metaphysical empire, or the empire of the mind, outlived the physical empire as envisioned by the advocates of the language spread? Metaphysical empires create colonies of the mind. The success of the empires of the mind, and their product, colonies of the mind, can be seen in the very defenders of the dominance of European languages over those of areas and regions outside Europe. In Africa today, the defenders are African intellectuals and policy makers.
ome of them act as if it is the English whose existence is being threatened by African languages: African languages interfere with the English accent.
Again, this is not new or unique to Africa. The defenders of English and arguments in favour of its dominance, come from the intellectual of the colonised periphery as a whole. In the case of English, this phenomenon first manifested itself in England’s Northern neighbour, Scotland. The eminent intellectuals of the 18th century Scottish enlightenment, Hume, Smith, et al waxed ecstatic about standardisation of English and its virtues for national formation and even as an imperial export.
But even among the Irish the greatest defenders of the language were latter-day Irish intellectuals.
Of course there is nothing wrong in wanting to take English or any other language as one’s own. I have always argued that each language, big or small, has its unique musicality; there is no language, whose musicality and cognitive potential, is inherently better than another.
African languages with all their different and unique musicalities are still in everyday use. What seems to horrify these intellectuals, the policy makers and the international financial services behind them, is the call for vigorous literary intellectual and eve scholarly reflection of that reality. Availability of more information, more knowledge, more skills in those languages otherwise in daily oral use will break up the nation. But the concentration of the same in English or French will somehow cement the nation. The result: pamper European languages; pauperise African languages. The entire African language speaking majorities are taxed directly or indirectly so that 90 percent of the resources available for language education can go to groom English accents. In some countries, African languages have been unceremoniously axed out of the curriculum or made into electives.
Some advocates of English dominance not only want it so but would actually like to see the literary disappearance of native languages altogether.
The explanation of this desire, death wish for one’s own language and the simultaneous categorical embrace of the dominant other, has to go beyond the uses or not of the languages in question. It probably lies in how that sense of dominance was brought about.
A common thread in the export of English in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Africa was the constant association of extreme humiliation and negativity with native languages and the corresponding value and prestige associated with English in colonial education factories.
Corporal punishment, physical violence, was often meted to children caught speaking mother tongues in the school compounds, and additionally, made to perform acts of shame like carrying objects that proclaimed their stupidity or made to swallow filth in some cases. One set of languages was associated with defeat, shame, incoherence, savagery even, and the other, with modernity and science, with the human and conquest.
No wonder people would want to bask in the sunshine of the language of glory and hide
from those of shame and defeat.”
The full version of this article first appeared in issue 4 of BRICS Journal, as part of our partnership with The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.