Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
In Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature Ngugi Wa Thiongo relates the life he experienced both before and after the colonization of his country. He begins with his childhood memories of the stories told about the small, but cunning hare. He identified with this “underdog” character and the hare’s struggle against larger, predatory animals. Thiongo explains how he learned “to value words for their meaning and nuances.” Language had “a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning.” According to Thiongo, all language has dual characteristics. He uses the example of his forcible learning of English to convey the idea that language is “both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.”
Thiongo makes a strong case for this dualism of language. He first analyzes the three aspects of language as a means of communication. Agreeing with what Karl Marx called “the language of real life,” Thiongo establishes the connection between language and production. This connection encompasses all levels of production; from the simplest form between man, woman, and child to more composite forms such as factories.
Thiongo then discusses the element of language as speech. The author uses a helpful analogy to clarify his point. He compares language as speech to the human hand and man’s ability to manipulate nature through the use of tools. In other words, tools are the mediator between man and nature and speech is the intermediary between human beings.
The final aspect expressed by the author is language as written signs. This mimics the previous element of language as speech. It also differs from the other two traits in that writing came, historically, much later. The spoken and written language are usually the same in many societies. This allows for the children of a particular culture to have more coherence with the language they associate with their life experiences.
Thiongo also delves into the idea that language is a “carrier of culture.” The accumulation of values over long periods of time allow a people to express their past experiences, as well as perceptions of their society, thereby forming a distinctive culture. By stating that culture is a product of the history it reflects, the author shows the reader that culture and language are indistinguishable from one another. Language is how people explain the genesis and growth of one’s culture. It also is the means for conveying these cultural practices to future generations.
The second aspect is culture “as an image-forming agent in the mind of a child.” This involves our personal conceptions as both individuals and a society as a whole. To support this claim, the author states that, “language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and nature.”
The author provides a final element to support his claim that language is a carrier of the culture. Thiongo espouses that it is culture that carries particular images of reality through either the spoken or written word. The uniqueness of the human race to have the capacity to speak and form an order of sounds that can be understood among people allows for the transmission of cultural traditions.
Clearly, language as communication and culture are interconnected to each other. Culture is essentially created by communication among peoples of all societies. It, therefore, also becomes a means of communication. Thiongo sums up this idea by asserting, “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” This perception of how we see ourselves affects how we view, not only our culture, but also our society as whole. This socio-centric thinking can be best seen through a society’s common language. The author concludes that, “Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.”
It becomes apparent that Thiongo has constructed a valid argument for the importance of native languages in places that have experienced colonization. By highlighting the fact that language is not only a means of communication, but also a carrier of a peoples culture, he shows the reader that “taking away” language can cause a disconnect between a common people and their mutual experiences. This fact is evident when studying the evolution of the Hawaiian language. When the English language was imposed upon the Hawaiians, they lost, not only their native language, but also vital parts of their culture. The fact that the Hawaiian language has terms that cannot be expressed in English reaffirms the way this loss affected the culture as a whole. Luckily, there are now schools, such as Punana Leo, that provide complete student immersion in the Hawaiian language at the elementary school level. In general, there also seems to be a resurgence for a connection to the Hawaiian culture. By imparting their native language to their children, Hawaiians have allowed for a revitalization of this culture. This recovery of Hawaiian customs and traditions can only be enhanced by again making Hawaiian a living language.