In Summary
  • It is only through linguistic engineering and development of institutions that languages can serve communities effectively.
  • Our diverse languages and cultures are the means through which we are socialised into communities.

  • They help us receive knowledge and skills, make meaning out of life and the environment, solidify behaviours, construct identities based on gender, profession, geographical location or ethnicity.

Recent events in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage point to the possibility that Kenya might, finally, have the long-awaited policy and legislative framework that will integrate the languages of Kenya in national development.

ETHNIC ISOLATIONISM

The framework will ensure that development is inclusive and sensitive to the aspirations of the majority of the people who communicate in the languages of Kenya, including Kiswahili. One hopes that the framework will help us pay more attention to language as a tool for participatory and accountable governance, including economic growth, sustainable environment and social cohesion.

Although English continues to serve as an official language, it excludes the bulk of the people and denies them critical knowledge and skills. It is the informal sector, which predominantly depends on community languages, that drives our economy. Yet there is little planning and development around these languages so that they can play a more focused role in livelihood activities. It is assumed that they can respond to critical issues in agriculture, climate change, technological transfer, security and health of their own volition. But, in reality, it is only through linguistic engineering and development of institutions that languages can serve communities effectively.

Our diverse languages and cultures are the means through which we are socialised into communities. They help us receive knowledge and skills, make meaning out of life and the environment, solidify behaviours, construct identities based on gender, profession, geographical location or ethnicity. When we share languages broadly, we are able to build structures and institutions for the promotion, expression and protection of political, economic, social and cultural life. The proposed languages framework ought to help us transcend ethnic isolationism by providing structures for the learning of Kiswahili broadly and broadening avenues for the acquisition of community languages beyond the ethnic group. Delinking languages from the ethnic group is an important feature of linguistic engineering in the construction of the nation-state.

COLLECTIVE SOLIDARITY

Language is core to identity formation and collective solidarity. In our case, language can be used deliberately to create a nation defined by diversity of cultural experiences. The common experiences that are shared linguistically and symbolically contribute to relations of solidarity and interpersonal understanding. In the process of collectivising the meaning of life by community members, the nation is born.

In reality, the nation is a work of labour. It is not self-constructing. Rather, nation building is a political process pursued deliberately and rigorously by citizens. Through a common language, such as Kiswahili, our communities can construct a broad speech community and this, coupled with a shared vision, increases trust and a collective sense of belonging.

It is not surprising that the East African Community member states are developing Kiswahili as the regional lingua franca. They hope to use the language to enhance integration and to realise the East African Community Vision 2050 and Africa’s Agenda 2063. By adopting structures for developing Kiswahili, Kenya will become a key player in the regional integration agenda.

Kiswahili, spoken by over 120 million people, is one of the working languages of the African Union. It has broad acceptance on the continent and is one of the continent’s vehicular cross-border languages. There is ongoing work to enhance its role as the language of pan-African consciousness and a number of AU member states are warming up to it. Among other reasons, the language’s broad appeal results from the fact that its ethnic anchorage is loose and it has a flexible accommodative capacity to harness vocabulary. In other words, Kiswahili easily borrows from other world languages to propel itself forwards. But for Kiswahili to effectively occupy its rightful place as the language of wider communication, there is work that needs to be undertaken at the policy, legislative, and institutional levels in East Africa.

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