What is Language?

The more I read around the subject of language, the more I realise that the study of language is in fact the study of humanity. Language is at the heart of what it means to be a human being. It is one of the things that makes us different from all other creatures on this planet. Some would perhaps say it is the evidence of a ‘divine spark’ within each of us. Language is the prism through which we understand the cosmos and the means by which we interact with each other. But before getting into all this, it makes sense to consider what we mean by the term ‘language’.

Signs, meanings and syntax
I find it useful to think of language in terms of signs, meanings and syntax. Signs are things like sounds, letters and gestures which are given certain meanings. These signs are necessarily limited, for example by the range of sounds that humans are able to produce with our vocal chords and this could severely limit our ability to communicate. But we are able to put these signs together into sentences and thus use them to express a wider and wider range of ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions. We call the system that puts these signs together syntax; “a mechanism that enables human beings to utter or understand an infinite number of sentences constructed from a finite number of building blocks.” [reference] Different languages have their own range of signs and meanings and their own syntax which have developed over time in different places and in different social, economic and cultural contexts.

Value judgements and armies
All languages are spoken but only about a third of them are written. For example, relatively few African languages have been written down and of those few, most were written in very recent times and using characters from other languages. The fact that a language is not written is sometimes interpreted to mean that its speakers are backward. Another closely connected, and equally arrogant, value judgement is the notion that oral spiritual systems and religions are inferior to those centred around sacred writings. This is just one of a number of fascinating discussions in the field of linguistics – the study of language.

Another interesting debate relates to how we distinguish languages from dialects. You might think that there are some clear scientific steps for doing this. Dialects are often thought of as ‘sub-languages‘, forms of communication which are not distinct or formalised enough to qualify as fully-fledged languages. But in reality, these labels depend much more on power relations between groups of people than on any technical criteria. For example, during the European colonisation of Africa, the colonialists decided that the languages spoken in Africa were actually just dialects whereas European tongues were the only proper languages. This has persisted beyond the end of regular colonialism in Africa. As you’ll see elsewhere on this site, there is much truth in the idea that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

The power of language
Another fascinating linguistic discussion centres on how language affects the way we see and understand the world and how does it shape our behaviour? Some argue that language completely determines these things, while others suggest more plausibly that the influence is only partially. Several studies have been done in this area. There is some evidence that speakers of Chinese languages may be less able to think in hypothetical terms because the grammar of these languages lacks a clear way of expressing such concepts. Another study suggested that speakers of east Asian languages may have an advantage over English speakers in mathematics because their numbering systems are more transparent. This website will get right into this thorny area and will consider how these discussions can have serious social implications.

But that’s all for the future. Now that we have a basic definition of language, the next question to ask is where do words come from? That will be subject of the next blog in this series of Language 101. In the meantime, make sure you get future articles in your inbox as well as other exclusive content by subscribing to the Language and Life e-alerts. And please share any questions or comments you’ve got below.

Peace out!






Posted in Colonialism, Language 101, Linguistics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Why some Africans can’t speak African languages

Like many Africans living in Britain, I can only speak one language fluently – English – and I’m not happy about this.

Lost my tongue
Part of this is not my fault really. I was born in Kenya to Ugandan parents and spent the first few years of my life in Nairobi. I’m told that by the time we moved to London I was a talkative 4 year old showing decent skills in Kiswahili which is spoken by millions of people in East and Central Africa.

Unfortunately, this didn’t last. My parents spoke English with me and my brothers at home and we of course spoke English every else we went. The only language I actually remember speaking in my early life is English. We still used a few ‘remnant’ Kiswahili words. So we called the end slices of bread “kwanza.” When dinner was ready, my parents would announce that “chakula tiari.” But none of us was able to converse in Kiswahili.

An added complication to our experience is that Kiswahili is not even our main mother tongue. We come from a nation of people called the Bagisu in eastern Uganda and our ‘native tongue’ is Lugisu. Strangely, our parents would speak to each other in Lugisu, but they didn’t teach it to us. This meant that whenever family members would come and visit from home we would have to endure the routine embarrassment of not even sharing the Lugisu greetings.

Language and immigrant assimilation
I think the main reason my parents didn’t teach us our language is because they wanted to make it as easy as possible for us to settle into life in the UK. This is a familiar story I hear from my fellow diasporan friends from other African countries. Many of our parents had the idea that their children would be hopelessly confused by speaking more languages than just English. But I had loads of classmates of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Turkish (etc.) backgrounds who were just as proficient in English as I was, but were also able to switch to their own languages when speaking with family and friends. They didn’t seem all that confused!

Blending in with the crowd!
I also share the blame for this. I can distinctly remember as a youngster distancing myself from my African identity. I knew I was different from white people and even from other black people whose parents were from the Caribbean. My parents had a different accent. Even me and my brothers had a slightly different accent when we spoke English to our parents. As soon as I became aware of this, I made a conscious effort to speak to my parents using the same accent as the one I used on the streets. And being different as a child in school is like having a “kick me” sign on your back. My older brothers tell me that they got into quite a few fights when they first went to school here. So the ongoing challenge was to blend in as quickly as possible! This attitude continued as I got older and I made no effort to really get to know anything about my Ugandan heritage, our language, our food, our customs, nothing. So me and my parents were co-conspirators my linguistic disenfranchisement!

Back to the linguistic future!
Sadly, many Africans in the diaspora will be able to relate to this story. And they will probably agree that when you don’t have knowledge of your mother tongue, you also miss out on the connection the language gives to your culture and heritage. But the good news is, we don’t have to be prisoners of our personal histories! As long as we are still breathing and there are people who speak our language – we can still learn!

That’s exactly what I plan to do. I’ll be using this website to keep you updated on my efforts to become vaguely competent in either Lugisu, Luganda or Kiswahili. Subscribe to my email alerts for updates and exclusive content, and also follow me on Twitter: @languageandlife.

Posted in African, Culture, Diaspora, Immigration, Language Learning | 4 Comments