Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ba rata Sekgoa mme se ba ketefalela

A couple of weeks ago, I read in one of the local papers a contribution by a fairly new local writer on why he has chosen to write in English over Setswana.

It was an intelligent contribution which quoted Ngugi and Achebe’s arguments for and against writing in English. But finally it was a pointless debate. The problem with such tiring arguments is their failure to understand the different functions served by various languages locally and internationally.

It is an inescapable truism: English is an international language with incredible prestige and educational benefits beyond our national borders. It is a language that enables dialogue between this country and Norway, Germany, Tanzania, Libya and many other states.

It is the language that enables an academic in Botswana to dialogue with another in Texas. It enables a reader in Tshidilamolomo to log onto the internet and access The Times of London, the New York Times, Sunday Standard, Mmegi or The Voice and read limitless news and opinions. English remains the undisputed international language of communication and will remain so for many years to come. It is therefore critical to know English.

However the knowledge and mastery of English in no way presupposes incompetence in Setswana. The two languages are not mutually exclusive and to treat them as such is extremely pretentious and disingenuous. We must appreciate that a people’s identity resides in their language.

A language is a people’s ID. Whenever those people turn their backs on their language, their identity is compromised; their mannerism is confused, their dignity is lost.

They lose confidence in their abilities and have an immeasurable inferiority complex. Without their language their ability to express themselves sufficiently is curtailed enormously. They bite on their tongues; they worry about tense and diction.

They cannot speak to their God from the depths of their hearts because they have forsaken the very tool that God gave to them to articulate their feelings and emotions.

This is most disturbing particularly amongst members of parliament whose insistence on English alienates them from the people who put them in parliament in the first place. When individuals are on a campaign trail to go to parliament, they campaign in Setswana.

Their campaign is effective. Batswana across this desert terrain hear and understand them and subsequently give them a chance to represent them in parliament. Once in parliament, things change.
Those who reached parliament through Setswana now switch to English. They deliver and debate motions through the medium of English. What this means is that Setswana doesn’t grow since the language doesn’t claim new domains of usage such as parliamentary debates.

They starve the language from being used in these domains and consequently Setswana remains stunted.

Additionally, MPs themselves don’t grow in their mastery of their own tongue since they are unfamiliar with the use of their language in new domains.

But we need to also question the insistence of MPs’ use of English. How good are they with the language? Some of them are fairly good, but many are not. Le fa ba rata Sekgoa tota mme ga ba se itse sentle. English is a difficult language, very difficult to master.

By knowing English I am here referring to a mastery of pronunciation, morphology, collocation, idiom and semantics. However, many people, born to a Setswana family still insist that Setswana is difficult. Eish, Setswana se thata!

This is nonsense. How can a person’s second language be easier than their mother tongue? Perhaps it is true that ga ba a se itlwaetsa, but this doesn’t mean that Setswana is difficult. The truth is that English is difficult but people don’t want to admit this difficulty because if they did, they would appear less intelligent.

English gives them an appearance of knowledge, class and prestige which Setswana doesn’t accord them. A couple of years ago in a church I heard an illiterate guy pray in Setswana with such amazing passion. His prayer was colourful and fervent.

But it was sprinkled with Thank you Jesus, Oh we love you Lord. He had memorized these common religious statements of gratitude and affection. By sprinkling these English statements he felt he prayed well ÔÇô that God heard him and most importantly, that the congregation approved his prayer. What a waste!

I also believe it is proper that the Minister of Finance and Development should deliver the Budget Speech completely in Setswana if it is to be broadcast on Radio Botswana as it is the usual practice.

It is probable that he would have written the entire budget speech in English, and that’s OK. However, if he is to read it for Batswana to hear it is advisable that he finds someone to translate the entire document into Setswana before it is read.

This would empower the common people across the country to know the kind of developments that are coming to or departing from them. There would be some who would say that it would be difficult to express certain business concepts in Setswana.
That is correct. However that shouldn’t stop us from translating a business document. Such a challenge would be experienced by anyone working on a new domain.

I recently worked on the translation of Google Search into Setswana and it was difficult. We had to translate terms such ‘log-in’, ‘log-out’, ‘password’, ‘webpage’ and many others. Additionally, I find Setswana expressive and rich.

It would be hard to find a Motswana who can express the same sense and weight carried in the following: motho a go gotoletse matlho; lehuma le shenne meno; motho yo o tlhogo ntsho e bile a le setatalala; borampakhibidu; go feroga sebete; dikwaba tsa gagwe di boitshega; a goletse ganonng jaaka tlatlana; a le dinalanyana e bile a tshwaratshwara.

If these Setswana expressions are fairly familiar to you, but you find it hard to express them in English, with the same force then o rata Sekgoa phetelela mme tota se a go ketefalela.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.