When I overheard this broadcast conversation suggesting that multilingualism is good for the memory, I thought that maybe we are, unknowingly, holding on the tips of our tongues the magic pill that boosts and protects our memories.
We are recognising the potential of multilingualism in shaping the character and nature of both individuals and societies.
What did you have for lunch yesterday? What is the first thing you said to your colleagues at work this morning, that is, after “good morning”? These may sound like silly and bothersome questions but they point to a vital aspect of our lives: memory.
Remembering, and forgetting, names, faces, facts, figures, dates or places depend on a variety of factors. But one thing we all agree on is that they are main hinges of our existence as social beings.
Those who have recently had the misfortune, if not disaster or catastrophe, of forgetting wedding or first-date anniversaries and, especially, their partners’ birthdays will bear me out in this.
Memory is a serious and widely discussed topic today. Both experts and ordinary people like me are curious and eager to know how memory works, how to improve it, how to maintain it and prevent its impairment or loss, and even how to recover it if it is lost. This is mainly because increasing cases of memory complications are being detected in both healthcare institutions and within our families. Memory impairment may occur in otherwise healthy and relatively young people, but certainly as people live longer, memory problems may reach epidemic proportions, even in the most developed societies.
This is why you hear terms like “Alzheimer’s”, “dementia” and even “amnesia” being touted around. They are all about problems with our memory. Regardless of our age, gender or social background, we all want our memories to work well. A good memory should be active, agile, versatile and creative. In other words, it should be able to record and store experiences quickly, recall them readily and organise and utilise them appropriately.
Few of us can claim to have a perfect memory. Fortunately, as research and experience help us to understand better the workings of the brain, which is the seat of memory, we are learning discovering some practical steps that we can take to improve our memory and prevent, delay or minimise its degeneration. One obvious step, for example, is to keep our brains free from harmful substances like excessive alcohol and psychotropic drugs.
The most effective approach to memory maintenance, however, is keeping the brain constantly exercised. We know that, like any other organ of the body, the more the brain practises and exercises performing its functions, the better it will become at them. We can, therefore, assume that our memories will become increasingly stronger, sharper and more durable if we keep using them to acquire, retain, recall and process experiences. Learning and using new languages is one of the very good memory exercises.
This, indeed, is what got me sharing this memory rap with you. You know how enthusiastic I am about languages and especially multilingualism. Some of us are called polyglots because we operate in a clutch of different languages, like English, Kiswahili, Luganda, French and Latin. That is in my case, and I am still struggling to acquire a smattering of Arabic.
Most of us are multilingual anyway. Every reasonably educated East African is likely to be trilingual, speaking a home language, Kiswahili and a European (ex-colonial) language. So, when I overheard this broadcast conversation suggesting that multilingualism is good for the memory, I thought that maybe we are, unknowingly, holding on the tips of our tongues the magic pill that boosts and protects our memories.
Have you ever heard of The Power of Babel? No, no, we are not talking about the “Tower” that is supposed to have led to our multilingualism. Rather we are recognising the potential of multilingualism in shaping the character and nature of both individuals and societies. Indeed, The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience is the title of a book by our two great Mazruis, Prof Alamin Mazrui and his late uncle, Ali Mazrui. Their title alludes to an earlier text by John McWhorter.
Mention of the Mazrui book reminds me that I was supposed to write about books this week, especially in the wake of the glorious Nairobi International Book Fair, into which I had hoped to immerse myself. But, as ironical fate would have it, I was urgently summoned “home” to Machakos County, to collaborate on the writing of a new book. So, I was out of Nairobi for the duration of the Fair.
Still, my book joy followed me home, for on arrival there, I was presented with an autographed copy of A Grammar of Kiikamba by my beloved “Mum” and academic daughter, Prof Angelina Nduku Kioko of USIU-A. Soon afterwards I also received an autographed copy of the intrepid and inimitable Jane Obuchi’s Chingero chi’Abagusii (Songs of the Abagusii), complete with a DVD on which she sings and “dances” some of the songs.
Prof Kioko’s scholarly text, published by Twaweza Communications, is prefaced by a lucid and perceptive comment by our mutual friend, Prof Kivutha Kibwana, the Governor of Makueni County. Very significantly for me, Prof Kibwana mentions in his preface that the appearance of books like A Grammar of Kiikamba may contribute to our national cohesion and integration by facilitating “the actual learning and mastering of one another’s languages across our ethnic lines.” Would this not be the “power of Babel” (multilingualism) in dynamic and beautiful action?
This might also connect with what I said in my preface to Jane Obuchi’s book, which is a parallel Ekegusii-English presentation of the popular songs of the people of the region. It occurred to me that in order to have a fair picture of our languages and oratures, we need not only present concrete and live samples of them, but also map their complete patterns right across the country.
We could, thus, have interconnected texts forming a language map of Kenya, and another set forming an orature map of Kenya. Ms Obuchi and Prof Kioko have, with their texts, pointed us in the right direction.
The ball, or is it the drum, is now in our court.