Tag Archives: language

Do you speak English? The politics of Language

This post has been incredibly difficult to write. So I will just drop all the gimmicks and get straight to the point.

You see, when I first arrived in France, many people were surprised that I spoke flawless (albeit heavily accented)  English. I remember one Spanish guy in my French class tried to break the ice by asking if we speak French in Kenya. After a long pause, I asked him ‘if we speak French in Kenya, then why am I studying beginners French with you?’

I guess the sarcasm was too complicated for his Catalan brain, because he asked me the same question three times. I ignored him and our relationship never really took off.

Quel Surprise

Much later on, when I got used to dealing all kinds of stupid questions and situations, I bumped into two adorable Japanese boys, who were amazed that I learnt  English so fast and were quite chuffed by my ‘ American ‘ accent.

I let them have their day because at this point I cannot be bothered to explain to people that most Africans and other formerly colonized people (I’m looking at you, South Asian people) speak several languages simultaneously.

The Guardian published a mildly interesting piece on the benefits of being bilingual. But come to think of it, did you ever think of yourself as bilingual? I never did, mostly because I imagine that being bilingual means that you speak a language that is recognized internationally.  But according to that article then, we, the urban citizens of our great continent shall never have to worry about Alhzeimer’s, as we continue to navigate between our native ‘dialects’ and the languages of the developed world.

So what exactly is my point? Language is strongly linked to identity. But unlike your average Estonian or Japanese, who’s first language is clearly named after their country (or the other way round) we don’t have that luxury. (Unless you are  as bullheaded as Ngugi, who insists on writing all his books in Kikuyu and then having them translated…)

Of course, it all goes back to our extreme touchiness at any perceived slight or racist attitude or remark. Because, once our basic needs were met, (unlike waaaay too many people who’s lives hang on a balance everyday) we are now obsessed with convincing people that we too are civilized like them. And I really wish we could stop. Because we end up looking like stupid imitations of the real thing.

Africa is huge. And we have lots of animals and untamed jungles. We are piss poor. And all the other poor and miserable people in the world can point at us and feel better about their own shitty lives. Deal with it.

And that is why I don’t immediately start defending my country by pointing out that we also have cities with tall buildings and roads.

I just say that English is the language of business in my country. And then I hang out with people who don’t imagine that I am the sole representative of my continent. And with people who Google phrases in Swahili to impress me. (insert giant wink wink here)

Feels good to get that off my chest.

Coming soon…hilarious adventures in India.

Meanwhile, enjoy this totally unrelated video on how to fake speaking French (and yes, I have used some of those tricks!)