The privilege in learning an oppressed group’s native tongue

Language is such an important part of culture. There have been various conversations across the Afrikan continent about how our languages are becoming endangered. The discourse that places development and maintenance of native culture on a spectrum shows that the more “developed” a country gets, the less intact its natives are with their language.*

We know Afrika has over 2000 languages and dialects.

When you are at school, your classes most likely run in a foreign language. When speaking to your friends, you most likely do it in a foreign language. When you are home, you speak to your siblings in a foreign language. Most business transactions are done in foreign languages. Books, Newspapers and Journals are mostly read and/or written in English (like I’m doing now).

Your life becomes surrounded with people speaking foreign languages but you know just enough of your mother tongue to… purchase fish at the market, chat with the taxi driver and hold a one-minute conversation with the house help. You begin to have trouble expressing yourself to your mother and holding full conversations with your grandparents.

The ability of one to speak a foreign language fluently becomes a way to identify and/or place people on the social hierarchy. The elite and persons on the highest level of the hierarchy are the fluent speakers with the most social and economic power. What this does, as has been discussed by numerous development analysts, is it makes being fluent [only] in your native tongue something undesirable.**

This is not news to us. So this is not what I am trying to write about.

In the education systems in many Afrikan countries, you do not learn your native tongue. If you do, your parents (and society at large) find it their job to tell you how useless it is to enter an academic institution only to study your language. So, you end up opting for other things (usually a foreign language that you are not already fluent in).

On the other side of the globe… welcome white people who are majoring in our languages! Getting BAs, Masters degrees and PhDs in our native languages.

As an Afrikan student in the States, it has never occurred to me to go to Harvard, Yale, or UCLA to study an Afrikan language. God forbid I tell my parents I am going to Harvard to learn Kinyarwanda! What a waste of talent, money and life in general. But you have Harvard University offering Afrikaans, Amharic, Kikuyu, Hausa, Igbo, Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba, Xhosa, Zulu among many others. UCLA, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford also offer most of these classes. And of course like you’d expect, most of these classes are full of white students- many of whom are taking them because they want to do volunteer work in the respective countries.

First of all, it is ludicrous that some Afrikan’s only opportunity to learn their language is to come to the West. It is just as ironic as that scenario where we, Afrikans, travel to our colonizers’/ oppressors’ countries to expecting to learn our history and culture. I’m sure many of you have departments like Afrikan Studies or Afro-Caribbean studies and courses like Afrikan history. I take these classes! But some times I spend the entire hour or three laughing at how crazy it is that I am seating in a class where a white person is telling me about ME and my ancestors. Now, I can imagine sitting learning ibihekane and inyajwi from a white person. Anyway, …

What does it mean when you have the privilege to learn my language, especially in cases where the oppressed cannot speak the language?

The most influential part of this privilege is the fact that you get to write my history, culture, tradition and my people’s narratives. Speaking a native tongue, particularly in the Afrikan context allows you to access oral history and tradition and understand it. You get to speak to and interact more with the people that get shun to the side in our society as a product of the development/ modernization processes. Furthermore, as a speaker of the native tongue, you almost (or could) get to ideologically understand them better than their country-mates.

Side note: I know this textbook that talks about Kinyarwanda, the grammar and its history written in Kinyarwanda by a white man. [Y’all the first time a friend told me about it… it was too much!]

Many of us will continue to treat Afrikan languages as invincible but very few of us acknowledge the fact that no Afrikan culture today exists as an independent entity of colonization. Even, the Dinka culture, one of Afrika’s most preserved cultures, today, shows signs of shifting.

While Afrikans are being systematically pushed into participating in the degradation and disempowerment of their own languages, some Western people are paying thousands of dollars to learn those languages and then being praised. This is the privilege of learning someone else’s language. It is married to white privilege and socio-economic privilege.*** It is part of the complex system that maintains and reproduces unequal and unjust power structures.

What is the point of learning a dying language? It creates dependency and furthers the white savior mentality. These communities will, at some point in the cycle, rely on you to learn their languages- to save our languages- our cultures- our history- to save us.

*Read: Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and Modernizing Malthus by Gavin William

**Read: Inventing Social Categories Through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal by Staicy Leigh Pigg

*** Read: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh



2 Replies to “The privilege in learning an oppressed group’s native tongue”

  1. This is absolutely true. White people are becoming experts on our cultures, and generally not for sinister reasons. The problem is that unless you grow up in a very Afro-centered household, you are in the majority of Blacks who must learn to value yourself, whether you’re from the continent or the diaspora. We have thrown off so many parts of us, and whites are picking up those parts and donning them. Here I am at 30 re-learning my mother tongue. For me, this is a deep pain.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You make such great points. I hope to move to Arica, Tanzania to be more specific, and learn the native tongue from a native or at least someone with skin like mine.


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