Wisdom in tongues
By Dirk Jena
Article published in The Fiji Times ONLINE
13 March 2012
Those who cannot name the good things of the sea and land, cannot find them, and therefore cannot eat or otherwise benefit from them nor will they know how to look after them well. Implicit in this Marovo maxim from the Solomon Islands is the impoverished landscape of a world without languages.
A chunk of the global colourful tapestry reflecting our cultures constitute languages and dialects, proponents of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is indeed as important to humanity as biodiversity is to nature.
Our linguistic diversity is our common heritage albeit fragile there is good reason for fears that the end of this century is also the death knell for some 6000 languages. Language loss is nothing new but the phenomenon markedly increased in the last 30 years a bad omen for we may miss out on another potentially effective development approach.
South African statesman Nelson Mandela said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head; if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." Mandela's statement underlines why reverting to the mother tongue could be the missing link to increased effective development. The challenge however is convincing both development workers and indigenous communities of the value of mother tongues.
The devaluation of our mother tongues prevents us from appreciating the vital role it plays in strengthening unity and cohesion in our communities, and preserving cultural heritage. Our mother tongues form the basis of our identity, social integration, education and development.
Mother tongues have been facilitating intergenerational knowledge transfers, with all their unique modes of thinking and expressions, for centuries. And with lifespan now allowing four generations to be alive at one time, there has never been more capacity for this mode of intergenerational knowledge transfer. However the dominant economic system of today continues to discriminate against indigenous languages.
The United Nations through its Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has been celebrating Mother Language Day for 12 years, in recognition of the central role of vernacular languages. Research has proven that people perceive intuitively that linguistic diversity will contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and that mother tongues can be powerful tools against illiteracy.
Since 2005, UNESCO has been working with the Marovo language-speaking communities in Western Solomon Islands on an environmental encyclopedia in the local language. A total of 211 Marovo-language assignments were written by students between eight and 16 years; it was the first time for about 90 per cent of them to write anything so substantial in their own language.
The intention is not to implement environmental lessons but rather to integrate indigenous knowledge systems.
In the Marovo example, education materials in the vernacular foster the transmission of environmental knowledge through intergenerational dialogue, the foundation being laid in primary school highlighting the connections between local knowledge and that of science.
The challenge however is making it work on a large scale as indigenous languages are ignored by dominant education systems.
We can consider the concept of Integrated Household Resource Management (IHRM) to guide our approaches for one of its tenets is the avoidance of the neglect and/or loss of indigenous knowledge.
Indigenous communities' world views and logic of their raison d'etre are mostly in metaphoric speech forms.
These metaphors create a unity of the communities' societal, spiritual and environmental essence. But the disintegration of this system caused by today's market forces, has ascribed negative connotations to indigenous systems, which prevents an efficient use of local resources and creates dependencies: we must reverse this trend.
But the vitality of a living language depends heavily on those who speak it. In this context, the role played by indigenous women cannot be over emphasised. Indigenous rural-based women are often primary transmitters of indigenous languages to future generations, hence the reference to it as the "mother" language.
Rural women hold much of the knowledge needed to increase food security, address poverty-related issues, and manage disaster response and environmental conservation.
They are custodians and users of traditional knowledge; these have implications on community-based activities like fishing, herbal medication, shelter, building, gardening, etc.
The duality of being rural island communities in today's market-based value systems requires an integrating process that works, to progress communities towards an improved quality of life.
Island rural communities' existence based on interactions that combine their physical, spiritual and organic surroundings has been largely ignored by development frameworks; the integration model of the IHRM concept however can be a realistic option.
The traditional family and kinship systems in the South Pacific have always been very complex and remain the major organising and connotative principles for individuals and society.
This structure and integrating capacity of family and kinship system is therefore in itself considered as an important resource that should not be neglected when assisting people in making rational decisions to cope with community problems, resource-related scarcity.
The mother tongue is vital in this context.
Once people are assured of the value of their mother tongue, exploring its inclusive system of knowing will hold a lot more appeal and potential; this then can benefit the never-ending quest to ascertain effective development.
Mother tongues and the wisdom woven within them are treasure troves for governments, civil societies and development agencies.
Italian film director Federico Fellini may have succinctly phrased what we miss out on when he said: "A different language is a different vision of life."
We owe these visions a try.
Dirk Jena is the director and representative of the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office.