Mind your language, my culture and heritage are at risk

Minister Langa

Minister Langa

Ignatius Mabasa
THE decision by Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Honourable Andrew Langa to establish a language council will definitely play a very important role in making sure the cultural haemorrhaging that is currently taking place is plugged and that local languages are recognised, saved, safeguarded and promoted accordingly.A stitch in time saves nine, and I believe that the minister needs to establish the language council soon because there is growing “official” desecration of our languages through adverts, billboards and other public messages.

Our languages, culture, values and heritage define who we are and must therefore be respected and protected. This makes the language council concept very critical, because it will give named people leadership and custodianship of our beautiful and rich languages.

Without guidance and regulation, people do not act responsibly. Today, a lot of companies and organisations seem to be getting excited about getting messages out in local languages without ensuring that the spelling, meaning and orthography of the languages is being followed and respected.

Some advertising agents, organisations and companies are coming up with adverts that blatantly show lack of respect for local languages. While I agree that advertisements are creative efforts, I believe that they must also observe agreed writing standards for those languages.

The fact that adverts are in the public domain means their creators must make sure they act responsibly. It is disrespectful to people who are working hard to promote and preserve their languages to see badly written adverts with weird meanings in the public space.

Recently, I have been seeing several Shona adverts in newspapers, on TV and billboards with atrocious word division that bastardises the conventional spelling system (orthography) and at times meaning.

This defeats the purpose of teaching children the correct language. To me, this carelessness is a sign of how we do not value and respect our languages. If people have been to schools that treat local languages and those that speak them as inferior, I don’t think the proposed language council should allow the same people to continue debasing our languages and disrespecting us by churning out confusing adverts, and yet want their products to be visible and be bought by the very same people they don’t respect.

I have been collecting examples of wrong Shona on adverts and billboards by respectable companies such as these below.

Mobile Phone Network

Wrong: Unotoshaya kuti zvirikumbo famba sei?
Correct: Unotoshaya kuti zviri kumbofamba sei?

Meat Company

Wrong: Nyama yakapfava zvino shamisa
Correct: Nyama yakapfava zvinoshamisa

Beverages Company

Wrong: Maviri anemivharo
Correct: Maviri, ane mivharo


Wrong: Ndino chinja mari yangu…
Correct: Ndinochinja mari yangu…

Funeral Insurance

Wrong: Zvangu zvirikufaya.
Correct: Zvangu zviri kufaya.

Dairy Company

Wrong: Mukaka wakakodzekwa une ruomba, Izankefu ezilolaza
(Two languages written as one sentence)

Funeral Insurance

Wrong: Mungave muine zvamurikuda.
Correct: Mungave muine zvamuri kuda.

As a parent, I encourage my children to read any public text, from newspapers, billboards to adverts, from the non-literary text through any kind of literature with a healthy questioning attitude. With well-written texts this leads to a greater appreciation of the language, idiom, text’s qualities and the effects it achieves.

The wrong Shona spellings and orthography that I have been seeing on several adverts are the very same mistakes that teachers and parents are fighting very hard to correct and make sure are not repeated by our primary and secondary school children. Wrong Shona on adverts and billboards reverses the gains of teaching and pride in our local languages.

The Ministry of Education’s Primary School Shona Syllabus for Grades 4 to 7 places strong emphasis on children being able to read for comprehension, being able to read aloud and fluently, as well as observing punctuation marks.

Children are also expected to read in order to be aware of language and its many uses. At this stage, they are not only expected to be limited to reading what they learn in textbooks, but to be able to also explain charts, graphs, maps and tables. In brief, they are expected to be able to get information and knowledge from different sources – road signs, informative signs and danger warning signs.

According to Save the Children, promoting literacy can begin from the earliest stages of children’s development. Activities that build children’s language skills, that boost their understanding of the immediate world around them, and that add to their store of knowledge all contribute in a big way to laying the foundation for children’s ability to read.

Such activities enable children to connect language to concrete objects or events, express their own ideas, and make sense of the written word. A lot of children in Zimbabwe do not have many written sources to learn to read their language from, except school textbooks.

For most people who grew up in the rural areas before the advent of mobile phones, letter writing was a great way to encourage children to read. I remember how as children we would receive letters through the school to take to our grandparents or any other family member.

There was great joy in holding a letter addressed to someone you know. We would read the address in full, and if we were lucky, we would be asked to read the whole letter when we eventually delivered it to the addressee who may not be literate. I remember reading letters fluently to my grandfather in Shona when I was in Grade Three.

Besides reading letters, I had the hunger to read anything that had letters I could recognise. I remember reading the abbreviation of the United States of America around that time and wondering what warning was being give by those three letters USA. In Shona, USA means DON’T!

Besides reading letters to my grandparents or someone in my village, I also got the opportunity to read the Bible to my grandfather who was a preacher, because his sight was getting poor due to old age. Even though I didn’t understand some of the passages, I thoroughly loved and enjoyed reading the passages with stories.

That was literacy in the home, which helped me immensely to love and respect the written word at an early age. Then, there were the buses that used to pass through our village. Together with my cousins, we used to count them and read out their names and their destination signs.

Another way I learnt to read was through the labels on many packaged foods, pesticides and agricultural chemicals. I used to read them out loud. According to Save the Children: “Before young children learn to read or write, or even recognise letters, they learn the difference between pictures and print/text. You can help your young child start recognising print by cutting out labels with print and pictures, then teaching your child to categorise them in two groups — print and pictures. With your older children, read the labels together and discuss what sorts of things the labels tell you.”

Practising literacy at home has many benefits such as helping build vocabulary, fluency, and confidence in expression in a child. It also teaches shapes, sizes, numbers, measurement as well as about local food and its sources. The biggest advantage besides helping children practise their reading skills is that it demonstrates use of reading in daily life by turning a familiar idea or activity into a learning opportunity.

All this requires properly and carefully written information. While mobile phones today present a wonderful opportunity to promote literacy, the way people are writing and spelling words on texting platforms is also rather disturbing and depressing to someone who may be too particular about words, their meaning and how they are put together.

Naturally, we all have the responsibility to be our mother language teachers and custodians. Children must learn from us how to pronounce words, how to properly and correctly use words to convey meaning.

Today, we are able to teach our children language because we were also taught by our parents and the community in general not only to acquire language, but to use it correctly. That is why I believe that we have a responsibility as Zimbabweans to make sure that when we use our local languages, we are using them correctly.

Even when advertising, our languages should observe the proper grammar and orthography rules because children will see the wrong language use and think that because it was generated by a big company, therefore it is correct. Well done Minister Langa for making things happen in the arts and culture sector.