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.