Why we need to mind our language

Communication is one of the most complex, yet indispensable tool we use daily. It is made even more complex when the language of, er, communication is English. To declare competence in communication means that you have the ability to do something successfully- and because perfection doesn’t exist, competence therefore implies a perpetual work in progress.

In his ‘Mark My Word’ column in the Saturday Nation, Philip Ochieng, a former editor with the Daily Nation keeps watch over grammar as used (abused?) in newspapers. Yet, he freely admits that English must be the most “difficult” language in the world. In his column on March 26th this year, he revealed that “English prepositions give reporters and sub-editors a great deal of grief -even in countries where English is the mother tongue. Such is the complexity of the language. Yet, despite this challenge, we cannot escape the fact that English is the official language of business communication, locally and internationally. We must therefore continually (not continuously as I learnt from Mr. Ochieng) strive to come to grips with it.

In my experience, the more common instances when English is murdered are when we say, me, I, like, for example, repeat again, severally (to mean several times, which it does not mean); and, my names are. Why does this occur? Because English is not a first language for most Kenyans. The mother tongue and/or Kiswahili usually are. And these influence written and spoken English. Borrowing from Chinglish (Chinese English) then, I contrive Kenglish to refer to spoken English that is influenced by Kiswahili and the many other languages spoken in Kenya. For instance, “Help me with your ID card,” is a direct translation from “Nisaide na kitambulisho chako.” The latter, is grammatically correct, but not so the former. It does not help matters when one’s English teacher pronounces alert as a rat, choose, juice or, art, hat.

Pronunciation is not taught in school. It is assumed that the student will somehow know. Small wonder then that hat, hart, heart, hurt and hut are all pronounced as hat by most of us. And why not? Pronunciation is a factor of contorting the organs of articulation (lips, jaw, tongue etc) to the rhythm of a language. Yes, every language has a rhythm. And two decades of working specific muscles of articulation in a specific way, it is unrealistic to expect the learner to flex them differently overnight. One might as well hope his pot belly will become a six-pack after lifting weights for an hour. One’s pronunciation can, however, change to a ‘six-pack’ through practice-as evidenced by the average Kenyan who has returned from the US after a year of being exposed to the North American accent. Or, one who learns his mother tongue as an adult.

And then there is punctuation. The semi-colon separates two independent sentences and is not interchangeable with the full colon. British English has the full stop inside the speech marks and American English, outside. These are the two anomalies I find most often with students with whom I interact .

The digital disruption did not spare communication. It is because of social media that hahaha became Lol!, you, u, and, one can insert a smile(y) at the end of a sentence as if it’s part of punctuation. Mercifully, there is spell check and predictive texting. This is a double edged sword though-on the one had it allows users to type faster and spell correctly. On the other hand, it is quickly becoming the remote control of written communication.

What to do then, now that we must learn a challenging language in challenging circumstances? Joining an organization like Toastmasters, that is deliberate in improving members’ use of English is one way; another, is to learn from Philip Ochieng’s Mark My Word column; a third is to grammatically write your texts, chats and social media conversations, and a fourth, be consciously aware to deliberately reduce  the influence of mother tongue in your communication.

The edited version can be found in the Daily Nation here

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