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Deeper Than Words

A mother language is deeper than words. It’s connected to memories, stories, people, places, and countless generations. A mother language gives many a sense of belonging, a unique identity, and pride. Speaking one’s mother language comes naturally for most people. They take to it as a fish takes to water.

For me, it was completely different.

Born in a quaint safari town in Botswana, Africa, I moved to the United States of America as a baby. My early childhood memories are a blur of Disneyland, football games, Barbie dolls, and American nursery rhymes. Growing up in a multicultural country, English was all we had to communicate – it was a bridge between different nationalities. English wasn’t just a part of my life; it was all I knew. My parents, who were graduate students, rarely spoke my mother tongue (Setswana). The familiar feeling of talking to your family in your mother tongue was not a part of my early childhood. It never struck me as odd that my Motswana family spoke nothing but English, but everything changed when I moved back.

Once my parents graduated, I relocated to my home country, Botswana. I experienced a colossal culture shock. The lifestyle in Botswana was the opposite of my life in the USA. I realised that my relationship with my native language, Setswana, was non-existent. Setswana is a language that dates to ancient times, with it appearing in the records of European missionaries in 1806. It is spoken by 8.2 million people across Southern Africa, with a majority of its speakers residing in South Africa and Botswana. It is part of the country’s culture that has been carried on for hundreds of years. It is also one of Botswana’s official languages.

Unsurprisingly, most of my extended family in Botswana spoke Setswana often. When they would converse in Setswana, cracking inside jokes, sharing affectionate greetings, and making hilarious comments, I would cluelessly observe them, like a stranger looking in from the outside. That was when I should have taken the initiative to learn this beautiful language when my mind was flexible, but instead, I grew the rift further.

A photo of a sunset on the Okavango Delta, Maun, Botswana. Photo by Jose Mizrahi on Unsplash.

Over time, as I grew up in Botswana, I decided to shun my native tongue. This was because speaking English fluently was an incredible source of pride. Around the world, fluent English is seen as a sign of high intellect and wits. I liked that I spoke English effortlessly in a Setswana-speaking country; I thought I was better and smarter than everyone. I enjoyed hearing the common praises of, “You’re so smart, you speak such good English. You can’t speak Setswana; you must be from a well-educated family.” In school, I felt like an international student in my own country. I had no sense of inclusion or belonging; I would have to nudge my friend for a translation every two seconds. When I was assigned Setswana stories to read, I was utterly lost; in 7th grade, I was reading 1st-grade level Setswana books.

A photo of classic children’s literature. Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.

The tragedy remains that I did not learn Setswana in a Setswana speaking environment for over 14 years of my life. The main reason was that I viewed English as a superior language. I was afraid that learning my mother language would chip away at my proficiency in English.

As I grew older, I began to immerse myself in my language in my late teens, appreciating its richness, versatility, uniqueness, and individuality. It slowly became a piece of me; I started embracing who I was through it.

Over time I have grown to love Setswana literature, which has a variety of hidden gems with versatile idioms and riddles. Before I left, I started to create those memories around my mother language.

After a long journey, now when I hear Setswana, it sounds like my grandmother’s voice, like the harmonious church hymns, like my cousin’s laughter, like the kind stranger you greet on the street, and ultimately… like home.

An image of a road in Maun, Botswana. Photo by Eirik Hodne on Unsplash.

I am not the only one who has a strong connection to my mother tongue. For Hope Nguasena, born and bred in Maun, Botswana, Setswana is like a second skin. Her childhood weekends were spent escaping the summer heat by swimming in the farm side river, and speaking in Setswana with her family. She played traditional games often, such as Morabaraba (marbles) and koi (jump rope). To her there was nothing special or significant about her mother language; it was common and the norm. “Everyone around me spoke Setswana; it was easy to communicate with your family and your friends. It was nice because we would tell jokes, and everyone understood,” Hope reminisced.

Her only struggle with her mother language was the variation between written and verbal Setswana, with the latter being more casual. Everyone can agree that mother languages are easier spoken than read. When I asked her why she loves her mother language, she says, “You feel a sense of belonging. You’re not alone, you’re with people, you’re connected through Setswana.” 

She further shared that she is not in favour of parents using only English in their households, “You’re taking a child away from their roots,” she said.

She plans to teach her children Setswana and pass on the history and culture related to Setswana. Like Hope, I also hope to keep Setswana alive by speaking, sharing, and teaching it. I want my children to know the ins and outs of my wonderful mother language and grow up in a world where they are not ashamed of it.

After reading this, I hope you have a different outlook on your mother languages and that of others as well. Let us create a future where mother languages are celebrated, spoken with pride, and kept alive.

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