To be more worthy of our heritage: Happy Mother Tongue Day

By Dhanaiswary Jaganauth

Dhanaiswary Jaganauth is a lecturer at the University of Guyana

World Mother Language Day has been celebrated worldwide every February 21 for nearly twenty years now. This year in Guyana, the day will not pass without notice as usual, because, through a collaborative effort within the Faculty of Education and Humanities at the University of Guyana, Mother Language Day will be observed from 2:00 pm to 8:00 pm this Wednesday at the Education Lecture Theatre. The public is invited. In an arena theatre space, we will be bringing together speakers of Guyana’s native languages (mother tongues) to share stories, poems, proverbs and songs in an interactive, participatory setting. The celebration will culminate in the presentation of certificates to the students who made history by attending a workshop in the writing of Guyanese Creole (Creolese), using an established writing system. The theme for this year’s mother language day is: “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.”

Aant Norvii reports, “Dem kom and dem kaangkriit a yaad wid kooknot hoks.” She’s talking about the overturned coconut husks that are arranged next to each other so that they form a covering over an area of ground in much the same way as a concrete driveway or patio might do. But the differences between the coconut husk patio and the concrete one are significant. They have consequences for the environment, the economy, and a whole way of life.

In another house not far from Aant Norvii’s, a woman takes a handful of the fibre from the coconut husk. She moulds the fibres into a manjna, a pot-scrub. She pulls the cold ashes (raakhii) from the dead fire in the fireside, sprinkles a liberal amount of raakhii on the pot and then, using the manjna, she begins to scrub the pot clean inside and out. She’s accustomed to using a manjna to manjee the bartan. She has no time for the imported sponge with the green topping that disintegrates after ‘tuu maanin’. She doesn’t use the shop detergents that are bad for the environment and for our health.

Local solutions

As we sing our national anthem and pray that we might be “more worthy our heritage”, more deserving of our heritage, let us pause and take stock of just what that heritage is. Is it just the mountains, the rivers and the rich, lush plains? What about the knowledge of our ancestors, the solutions they created, and their approach to solving local problems? What about the languages they created and used to store and to transmit their knowledge to their children?

The examples of the uses of the coconut husks illustrate the ingenuity of previous generations as they used what was available and recycled them to meet their needs. But that was not the only good consequence for the environment. “Concreting” with coconut husks is better than using cement. The spaces between the husks allow water to filter through to the ground. That helps to reduce the possibility of flooding and keeps more of the rain water in our reservoirs. The coconut husks are also biodegradable.


When we lock our students’ native languages out of the school, we also lock their cultural knowledge out with it. As one educator in Guyana noted, when children speak about personal matters they use their mother tongue to do so. And the teacher responds in the same language. But this same educator and others who monitor and regulate our schools frown upon such a practice and they will penalise those teachers for not using English.

Being educated in English only also means that our students are less likely to learn about the environmental value of most local practices. Their reading material is not likely to be about local life, except to point out those local practices that are bad. Whether directly or indirectly, our students are pointed in a direction away from what is local.

Closing the school door on local languages also closes the door on the many every day inventions of our people. When families made ‘pointer brooms’ at home, once they stripped the green portion off the pointer, they would use it to create a variety of items. One of those items was something that delighted young children with its magic. It was a ‘bloo-bloo’ (blow-blow) that was made from the green strip. Nowadays most people buy their pointer brooms. (Some prefer to use the imported brooms.) The art of making a bloo-bloo is disappearing.

Think of how the making of that little toy could be used in a science class (as well as in a craft class). What are the engineering features of the bloo-bloo? What does the construction of this toy tell us about how we produce sound in language as well as in musical instruments?

Other local ‘inventions’ include the ‘katariil tractor’. A cotton-reel, a rubber band, a piece of ‘pointer’, and a slice of soap turned into a self-propelled moving vehicle. An awara seed became a spinning top or a marble. Children and their parents made their own kites from scratch with glamacherii (gamacherii) for glue. All of these could become learning resources in our science education classes as well as in art and craft.

We have also lost many of the home remedies that were part of our heritage. Our English-only education told us these were to be shunned. We have not studied them to discover why they worked (or didn’t). We simply accepted that they were no good. Just as we bought the claim that coconut oil was not good for us. And now that market resides elsewhere.


Another part of our heritage, one that is more obviously linked to language, is the body of proverbs we have neglected. They reflect the collected wisdom of those from whom we are descendants. Yet these are not part of the language and literature syllabus of our schools. Because they are not English proverbs.

The proverbs we inherit reflect the insights of their creators. One concept that seemed to have preoccupied our ancestors’ thinking has to do with self-confidence. Consider these three versions of the same idea.

A chros bat chros iisef mek ii heng pan raafta tap.

Goot chros iisef mek ii klaim hai plees.

Daag chros ii fut, da mek ii gii taiga hat mout.

The common theme in all three is ‘trust’, trust in our own abilities. How do we develop that trust? By taking a risk. The first time we do something involves risk-taking. We know we can fail, but we know that failure will not stop us from trying again. And once we succeed once, that gives us the confidence to continue to take other risks.

All learning involves risk-taking. Learning a new language is no exception. We run the risk of making a fool of ourselves in front of our classmates and teacher. Fear of their laughter, their ridicule and worse can so paralyse us that we are unwilling to take the risk and say something in the new language. And so we shut up and do not participate in a learning activity that could lead to new language skills whether in a second language or in our mother tongue.

Success breeds success, they say. It gives us that confidence we need to try new experiences. So the bat hangs upside down from the rafter because it knows it can; the goat is not afraid of heights and Dog can afford to challenge Tiger because he knows that he can run fast enough.

At the same time, we need to know which risks are within our capabilities. Over-confidence in the face of obvious danger is foolhardy. And our predecessors had a proverb for that too.

A rispek dok gat fu kyaniikroo mek ii naa iit a pleet.

We need to know our limitations and avoid certain risks. The duck knows the ways of the carrion crow. It knows that the carrion crow prefers to start its meal from a certain body part of the carcass. The duck knows its own body too. When a duck is eating from a plate, one body part becomes vulnerable to attack. It is the same body part that the carrion crow favours. So the duck protects itself. It does not eat from a plate.

Many proverbs refer to the behaviour of animals and other aspects of nature. Our ancestors must have been keen observers of the other creatures in their world. These days we hear that our relationship with other creatures is in need of repair. We have stopped seeing those creatures we share this earth with. We do not see that we need to protect them, that our existence is intertwined with theirs. We think they are there to serve our needs and we can destroy them and their habitats without giving it a second thought. We fail to see that such an approach has consequences for our own survival.


In Aan Norvii’s account of how the villagers fixed up her place, she says, “Dem kaangkriit di plees wid dem kooknot hoks.” She took the English noun ‘concrete’ and turned it into a verb to fit it into her Guyanese Creole sentence. She also extended its meaning. ‘Concrete’ here is not about using cement, sand and stone. This is an example of how Guyanese Creole was created. The words may have come from English, but their grammar and their meanings are not English. Our ancestors shaped them into a new language.

In that new language, they created new poems and songs. Those are also part of our heritage. But we need to create new pieces too. To do so, we need to value our linguistic heritage. Occasions such as Mashramani seem to be the only place we allow our people to parade their language. But without practice in shaping our creative pieces for performance on stage, we are going to continue to be bound to produce work of low quality.

One Looko-ajaaro speaker pointed out that we fail to promote our own languages but then we don’t speak English well. So we are forced to give up what we know, but do not know (and probably will never fully know) the new language we are forced to learn. Linguistically, we are in No-Man’s land.

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day 2018, UNESCO states, “Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.”

In recognition of the importance of mother tongues as reservoirs of knowledge, the theme for 2018 is “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.” Each culture, through its language, reflects a unique view about what it means to be human. Each brings a different perspective on how to solve the challenges of daily lives. Let us make room for all to flourish. Languages hold the key to such knowledge.

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