Pin It
Monday, October 21st, 2013

Why Most African Kids are Multilingual

By
Why Most African Kids are Multilingual (c) shutterstock

The average Kenyan child speaks three languages. This figure is even higher amongst children in urban deprived areas who regularly speak five languages. This is no mean feat considering many children growing up in these areas do not have indoor plumbing or easy access to basic education. What they do have however is a high density of people from different ethnic communities living cheek by jowl all with a huge impulse to communicate.

 

When I tell my friends in the UK that my daughter from the age of three is trilingual they are impressed. Actually it is quite normal for children growing up in Kenya. Here are the secrets as to why Kenya, like many African countries, is such a seamless multilingual society.

 

Secret 1: Africans love to communicate. That love of communication is the foundation for strong community ties and means that even an 80-year-old grandma in the most remote village will have a mobile phone to speak with her grandchildren in the city. Africa is also incredibly diverse. In Kenya alone there are over 40 tribes each with their own distinctive language. There is a common national language: Kiswahili and a common official language: English. (This is why educated Kenyans are not amused should foreigners remark what great English they speak).

 

Secret 2: Kenyans passion for language means that we are one of the only countries in the world that can boast the birth of a new language: Sheng. Sheng started out as a patois mix of English and Kiswahili but is now developing a grammar. The fact that a Sheng language TV station has recently won a Emmy award is testament to its versatility and had linguists from all over the world flocking to Kenya to witness its development.

 

Secret 3: Africans are open to experimenting. One of the reasons many people do not speak more than one language is a fear of making mistakes. There is the automatic understanding in Africa that if someone is speaking a foreign language mistakes are part of the process. People are willing to bend over backwards to understand you and this makes for fertile ground for learning as you leap forward with your new skills. Yes, there might be giggles and jokes but these are usually meant to be appreciated in the spirit of your new endeavour.

 

I have witnessed the magical combination of love for communication, passion and experimentation in my own family. When I was growing up my family developed our own language. It was a mixture of the four-five languages we commonly used plus words we created on our own. Interestingly we sang our language to each other and different tunes meant different things. None of us ever noticed the singing until my oldest brother got engaged and his fiancée commented on it. She remarked, “Do you realize that you sing to each other?” Apart from it becoming a running joke she too learned the tunes very quickly and the shortcut that a simple hum can be to encapsulate everything that you would like to express.

© 2013, JC Niala. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:


Overheard on the Beijing Subway When People Don't Think I Speak Mandarin

The awesome stuff I overhear like what these two Chinese women think of foreigners.

Why African Toddlers Don't Have Tantrums

The secret of why African babies don't meltdown like Western ones.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

2 Comments
  1. Commentsgael   |  Wednesday, 23 October 2013 at 4:59 am

    In France, we ‘re taught to distrust one another that’s why in my former street in Croisty, only French is spoken by the Bretons ; 2 English families have settled down ; no mix of culture : every one is pent up at home perhaps a hang over of war occupation whenl a milice( collaboraters ) were spying everywhere.

  2. CommentsWhy Most African Kids are Multilingual | Expat Africa   |  Sunday, 27 October 2013 at 5:21 am

    […] See on http://www.incultureparent.com […]









Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!



Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
Hi Kim! I am so glad that this article was useful for you and made you feel validated as a parent. It's not often in this judgmental world of parenting we get that, right?! That's the main reason...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
I love reading your work. I can olny imagine what it would be like to have such beautiful customs and true community. I understand why it is so very very important to keep these traditions alive. Be...
From No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing
Your mother in-law seems somewhat reasonable. Many Chinese Mother In-laws are not. In their scenario, they would be number 1 to the child and you would be number two. Many want to have a bond closer...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
I think Konstantina is actually responding to what is probably more familiar/praised/or preferred socially as well. I was an English teacher in Poland with a distinct accent. I struggled to get Engl...
From Should I Worry about My Child’s Accent in Her Foreign Language?
Noor Kids' title "First Time Fasting" is another great rea...
From 6 Favorite Children’s Books about Ramadan
This article was shared in a community I run to connect globetrotting parents and everyone LOVED it. You should join us! We all relate to your experience. Many of us, including me, are in the same b...
From Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get
Please help: I Love my wife and my son. I am also EXTREMELY involved as a dad. I had to move to china ( in a tiny tiny town) where I am the only foreigner so that my wife can take over the family bu...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
Thanks for writing this!! My baby is 7 months, and I love having her sleep in my room. I don't mention it too often to people who have had kids because they seem a little judgy on it. So tonight I...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Honestly, it looks like the author married into a very backward and old fashioned family. Not stimulating children's curiosity, differences between boys and girls, and women slaving in the house, wh...
From French versus Italian Parenting in One Multicultural Family

More Raising Bilingual Children