Demystifying the mother tongue in economics

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By Charles T.M.J. Dube

I USED to run economic literacy campaigns with the Zimbabwe Christian Council.
I was particularly intrigued by one class which had mostly elderly people, some of whom had only gone as far as Standard One (Grade Three).
I must also admit I was also experimenting on the impact of language on transmitting complex matters.
I navigated all the corners of economics with them in Shona and amazingly, no matter how deep I tried to go, as long as I explained in a language they knew, their subject grasp was even better than my first encounter with the discipline.
The idea of economic choice faced with scarce resources, the budget constraint, demand and supply, elasticity of demand and/or even cross elasticity, but, they still floored me with their examples from their everyday lives.
I upped the scales and even went into indifference curve analysis and we were still together. I varied my levels from ‘O’-Level, ‘A’-Level and even university depth and for as long as we were using Shona, we remained together.
I took them through both the equities, money market, the role of the state and the exchequer as well as the national budget.
It was just amazing how we academics have managed to mystify otherwise everyday things to an extent they become no-go areas reserved only for the technocrats.
I must admit, I was so moved by this particular group, I was motivated to start writing a series of textbooks in vernacular languages.
I had started with economics and was almost halfway on the first, until fate intervened; my computer crashed and unfortunately, the book that had been saved on desktop could not be retrieved through data recovery.
As if this was not enough, the diskette where I had also saved was borrowed and lost by my muzukuru.
I was going to originate in Shona and had already lined up friends to do translations into Ndebele, Venda and Sotho for the series for economics, mathematics, accounts, commerce and science.
It is almost 10 years now and the loss just killed my momentum.
I am writing this so as to broadcast the seeding for an idea.
Language is an embodiment of our culture as well as experiences and expresses who we are as a people.
You can tell how confident a people are in the community of nations by how they value and treat their language.
Those who walk tall will take pride in their languages and even pass it on to their children as a matter of course.
My young brother, Jepsy, got married to his Zimbabwean wife in Australia and has fathered three children whom we are as yet to meet.
They phone me once in a while and it is always a pleasure to hear their “Makadini babamukuru? (how are you doing elder father?)”
We then continue our conversation in Shona and I am sure Xolani would have been proud to have displayed his mastery of the language although he would have spent all day speaking English with the other kids at school.
When I came to Harare, I lived with my late uncle, Jabulani Mangena, whose children are now all adults and were all born in Harare, a predominantly Shona-speaking city.
They spoke to their children in both Shona and Ndebele, depending on who else was in the home.
These first cousins of mine can now as adults assert Shona and Ndebele as their native languages.
Children are very good at languages.
We have seen a lot of parents try to restrict their children to speaking English on the assumption that since it is the main language of instruction in formal education, protecting them from the pollution of the mother tongue would give them advantage in learning.
In doing so, such parents would only be depriving the children of the valorisation that comes from living who they are and setting adequate base from self-acceptance.
They would also be depriving the children of part of the centuries-old heritage that is passed on through and is embedded in language.
Language carries within it a people’s history, culture and experiences.
During infancy and as toddlers, children are able to understand far more language than they can speak.
It becomes, therefore, imperative that parents speak in languages they would like their children to learn in their presence.
Language explosion happens mostly between the ages of three and six and it is important to take advantage of this, although language can be learnt at any age and time.
At age three, the children’s vocabulary is at around 900 words, exploding to between 8 000 and 14 000 words by age six.
Children understand language twice as fast as they speak it.
I have already shown you the case of my nephews and cousins. Research has shown that in the case of bilingual parents wondering what language to teach their child, they need not bother and should continue with a life-as-usual approach.
According to Jurgen Meisel of the language Research Centre at Calgary, children have an inborn language acquisition faculty, which, between ages 18 to 36 months, enables them to develop and utilise the languages they have been exposed to since birth.
If raised in a multi-lingual environment, this faculty enables them to acquire more than one language simultaneously.
By age two, they will have developed the capacity to know grammar without having to be coached.
Between ages 3,5 to four years, parts of this capacity become inaccessible if language will not have been acquired.
Evidence seems to suggest that learning multiple languages simultaneously does not confuse children.
Medical science has proven that learning and using more languages throughout life generally delays the onset of Alzheimer disease by up to four years.
According to David Hoggan of the Brenda Strafford Foundation in Geriatric Medicine, it may do this by stimulating the brain and building up more of a cognitive reserve.
While the worry to most parents who deny their children learning their mother tongues has been driven by the fear that this could affect their grasp in learning in English, our main language of instruction, research seems to point out that school aged children benefit from reading in more than one language at the same time, without hindering their ability to grasp and read English.
Does the good book not instruct: Honour your father and mother so that your days on earth will be increased?
In promoting our languages, we honour our father and mother and this has a bearing on our survival or extinction as a people.

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