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The Obsession with Engrish

Dear Africana Woman,

What is this obsession with the English language ayi? I can only talk about my experience in Zambia but I wonder if other countries experience the same. Actually, I think Zambians have a special brand of obsession with the coloniser’s language.

Growing up, we made a point of laughing at anyone who made a mistake in their speech. The kind of mistakes where one confuses their L with R. To this date I remember statements like, “Who diggid the whole” being a classic running joke in our class. I cannot remember who said it or the context of why it was said. At my boarding school the grades had two classes A and B from 8 through to 12. However, in Grades 8 and 9 we had an additional class called C comprised of students from the surrounding area. Their English wasn’t the strongest. One time they presented assembly and sang a song that went something like, “Depraysion, and Meesory, you Nayver know what you find, speak to the Lord…” Oh my days we had a field day mocking them because of their pronunciation. I mean 20 years later I remember the lyrics like it was yesterday.

During my time of primary and secondary education the school of thought was that children were banned from speaking any vernacular on school premises because it hindered their ability to learn English proficiently. You would get punished if you were found speaking any vernacular. Personally, when I was a baby I spoke bemba and then at some stage decided to set that completely aside and speak solely English. To this date that is all I speak with precision. But over the years I have stopped laughing at people’s blunders as they speak it. Even when I see spelling mistakes I do not feel the need to correct it because I still understand what the other person is trying to communicate. I feel like we were made to believe that your intelligence was directly co-related to how well you spoke English, which is absolute bollocks.

Now first of all get this straight, in a nation with over 70 languages, many of our people speak on average more than three languages. These are multi-lingual children in comparison to a certain western country who only speak one language and guess what we still speak their own language better than them. You cannot convince me that out children are less intelligent because their command of the queen’s tongue is wanting. We are so forgiving of Europeans or Asians who don’t speak English well. We justify this with statements like, ‘oh it’s because they are German or French”, “They are Asian, it’s normal” but let your fellow Zambian make a mistake, eh he is an idiot.

The other thing that we have convinced ourselves is that you are only deserving of becoming wealthy if you speak English well. What kaak. It pains me to see our sportsmen and women who achieve milestones in their fields, and then when they are being interviewed, instead of speaking to them in vernacular, the interviewer wants to force them to speak English. Then they blunder in their speech. Followed by the whole nation laughing at them. Mocking them. Completely shadowing the achievement that this person made on the world stage. Seriously we need to get it together. Again, you are okay with football coaches who speak their native tongues and you read the subtitles neh. But you cannot give the same grace and dignity to our own sports people. English did not contribute to them being chosen for that Europa team or boxing at the level they do. They got there because of the mastery of their craft.

What is the obsession with this language Engrish?

For me countries I have experienced that really embrace their languages are Tanzania and South Africa. In Tanzania someone is more likely to speak Swahili over English. Of course, as a traveller it is scary because you are scared of getting lost. But they are the friendliest people and very helpful. It is so beautiful how much they love themselves. You know a language is the pillar of a culture. It is not just that you speak it, but there are mannerisms, beliefs, honorifics, poetry, history engrained in the language. For me it’s an act of Self Love.

For years, we have been obsessed with South African shows be it soaps, comedy, movies etc. We see our brothers and sisters proudly speaking their mother tongues. We diligently read the subtitles with no complaints. Look at how much their industry has flourished. Manje let’s talk about our own productions, we insist on making them in English. We have told ourselves that it is because we want to have International appeal. It should be accessible and inclusive to other countries. Let me explain a few things to you:

1. The first people you should entertain are your people. Your fellow country women and men. If you are not relatable to them. If you cannot entertain them how do you expect to convince anyone outside of this country that your content is worth watching.

2. When the performers are not comfortable with English you can tell that this is not their first language. It makes me feel uncomfortable watching them struggle with the lines. Quite frankly even the script is horrendous because it is not the writers first language. Why do we do this to ourselves?

3. It is a LIE that one has to do productions in English for it to appeal to the world. It has been proven over and over again by Korean Dramas, Bollywood, Nollywood, South Africa. There you are watching Money Heist. Abena Professor and his crew don’t speak English. Storytelling transcends the coloniser’s language. We connect with authenticity and humanity in the story. Be true to yourself. Stop holding onto the notion that your content has to be in English

My grandmother used to speak 7 languages. I wish I had inherited her tongue and could speak another language fluently. Over the years my understanding of Bemba and Nyanja has improved. Now here is the funny part about how much we hate ourselves. When you try to learn our vernacular languages as an adult, there is always someone ready to mock and laugh at you for not being able to speak vernacular well. There is no winning. I think it is a cycle of pain. Both sides have experienced humiliation because of the way they speak and hence continue to hurt each other instead of embracing and helping each other. I really hope going forward that in Zambia we shall see us embracing our native languages more.

I gotta go. I apologise for using more colourful language than I normally do. That’s how passionately I feel about this topic. Hey Sweetheart, welcome to the family. As your first time here make sure you click the subscribe button. To you the original Beby Gurl, the Live hard reader, thank you so much for your love and support. Remember we have started sharing this with at least one person yeah. Africana Woman is a blog, podcast and community. Please be part of all that is happening. You can also catch me on Instagram at @ChulubyDesign. My Darling, when you go out it into the world, I want you to love yourself, flaws n all and attract the life that you truly desire. Day 16 completed. #30DaysWriting

Love ya


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