Broken English: When Our Mother Tongues Take the Back Seat

Portrait of a beautiful African woman with orange scarf.
Portrait of a beautiful African woman with orange scarf.

Right before I came to America for university, my younger brother, a stick of a teenager with a playful grin on his face, looked me in the eye and told me with feigned conviction, "Priscilla, make sure you come back with an American accent." I laughed it off and agreed, jokingly, that for him, I would return with a more pronounced rolling of my "R's." My brother is a pretty sensible boy, and when he made the remark, I knew that an accent was the least of the things he wanted me to return with (a new pair of sneakers was most likely higher on the list).

As things would have it, the manner of my speech has been among the most fascinating aspects of my identity since I arrived in January 2014. I have taken notice that although my accent is what it is--clean-sounding English with its corners occasionally creased by my mother tongue, Chichewa--it has become an identifier. In America, it is the insignia at which eyebrows are raised and questions of my nationality are surfaced. Each time this happens, I increasingly take pride in the fact that my language has left its fingerprints on the way that I enunciate. I have taken pride in the distinctness of my speaking--in the fact that sometimes, R's and L's are mistaken for one-another in my mind. However, this has not always been the case.

When I was in primary school, one of the biggest offenses anybody could commit was speaking Chichewa, my mother tongue, on school premises. Prefects, with their ears alert for the slightest mumble of a word in vernacular and their chests puffed up with an air of authority, eavesdropped conversations and policed unsuspecting students. Once caught, perpetrators were left to the mercy of Mrs. Mphamba, a stern woman with an unrelenting scowl on her face.

Punishment varied. Some days, a line of offenders knelt down outside her classroom, arms elevated with pitifully apologetic looks on their Chichewa-speaking faces. Other days, guilty pupils could be seen hopping on one leg on the terrain behind her classroom, kicking up clouds of dancing dust as they did. Most days, however, a long, 25-centimeter ruler met their buttocks, and their tear-streaked faces shone to tell the story and serve as adamant warning to the rest of the students as they walked out, sobs escaping their lips and hands rubbing their throbbing behinds.

As I grow, I discover how deeply this history with my language has affected the way I think. From an early age, I was conditioned to look down on my mother tongue, and to deem it as "less than". I was taught to laugh when I heard people speak "broken English". It was ingrained in me to view one's ability to speak English and speak it impeccably as synonymous with high intellect.

This mindset is one that I have not only noticed in myself as I seek to navigate the world as a young Malawian and, indeed, as a young African, and proudly embrace my identity--it is also one that I have noticed in others. I have seen young people at home add a twang to the way that they pronounce their words, change the spelling of their native names, and mock those whose English has more obvious remnants of their mother tongues than others, all in an effort to be more consistent with Western manners of speech. I have seen children, with an air of pride, declare that they cannot speak Chichewa. Like me, they were conditioned to despise a part of who we are, and to be proud to be dissociated with aspects of identity.

There is nothing wrong with sounding Western, but there is something fundamentally problematic when it is born of disdain for one's own linguistic discipline or tradition. I am learning to laud my identity as a Malawian, and to take pride when my accent gives off that I am from there. I am realizing the beauty of my existence, in the way that my tongue enunciates English words, and in the swiftness of my own language when I speak it. My existence, I have learned, is valid -- not because it mimics another, but because in itself, it matters and contributes to the mosaic of diversity. I am learning to love my language. To speak it with pride. I am learning to see value in my culture and to know that it is quite frankly amazing to be African, a shift in my mind that I believe matters for every African to go through, given the history of our identities. My English is and forever will be broken; how can't it be under the weight of a language as aptly expressive as mine? And as for my brother, I look forward to going home and saying a loud hello, with my English still heavily doused in Chichewa.