Friday, May 31, 2013

How Relevant Is Swahili??

When speakers of English, particularly native speakers, refer to English as a global language, they often do so with a sense of pride and comfort. They do so because there is a lot of encouragement from political circles as well as the media that expresses the idea that English is the preferred communication tool across national boundaries. Let me also point out that not all native speakers of English are thrilled with the idea of making English a universal (global) language. Their main concern is the loss of the cherished English cultural

There is no doubt that Kiswahili has gained ground as a language of choice by millions of people in East Africa and its neighbors. It has been transported to different parts of Africa and the West due to migration, both voluntary and as a consequence of ethnic wars, including the fight against colonialism and apartheid. Refugees from neighboring countries learn Kiswahili during their short stay in Kenya or Tanzania and keep the language when they finally immigrate to England, the United States, or other western countries. This is evident in the increase in demand for Kiswahili translators for agencies like the American based Language Line Incorporated and Pacific Interpreters Inc. that offer services to law enforcement, hospitals, legal services, immigration services, airline companies, and schools.

Those who have had the opportunity to travel to East Africa recently would agree with me that Swahili hip-hop is gaining much popularity among the young people. That global dimension of hip-hop plays a role in attracting non-Swahili speakers to the lyrics and the associated performances even when the language used is not fully understood. Hip-hop offers a new avenue for learning the language through soft emersion and away to share indigenous knowledge and cultural values that are not easily accessible through print media. The attraction of Kiswahili hip-hop music to non-native speakers of Kiswahili is evident in the number of foreigners, particularly students and tourists, who buy hip-hop CDs and audio cassettes of this music and their keen interest in learning both the lyrics and the accompanying dance moves. The poetic nature of the lyrics makes it relatively easy for Kiswahili learners to learn the language and the dance moves. Interest in attaining fluency and high proficiency levels of the language also seems to be on the rise both at institutions in the West and at language centers in both Kenya and Tanzania. Such example demonstrate that Kiswahili is attaining a prominent status.

Kiswahili shares some similarities with English in its effect of enhancing social interaction between different groups, breaking down ethnic loyalties and identities. People from different groups intermingle with ease creating a decline in ethnic customs. This, however, does not mean that these groups have abandoned their core cultures. Like in the case of today’s English speakers, members of an ethnic group do organize themselves to meet their ethnic socialization needs, an aspect that explains the acceptability of different varieties that reflect the ethnic background of the speaker. In such interactions (includes wedding rituals, burial rituals, and other community festivities), ethnic languages are used interchangeably with Kiswahili, perpetuating code switching and code-mixing (Scotton1979). Scholars should not take part in undermining the power of Kiswahili. When a language is trivialized, its power is also diminished. We should not allow a global language to be trivialized by inaccuracies that are correctable by scholars who maintain an activist role in  promoting and perfecting a language. English, French, German, or other global language users do not trivialization their language. Kiswahili users should likewise take an active role in protecting and promoting it as accurately as possible. Using the word ‘possible’ here allows us to draw a distinction between standard and colloquial Kiswahili. A non-standard use of the language is acceptable while an inaccurate use of the language should be discouraged


 Olaoba F. Arasanyin
and Michael A. Pemberton


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