Fri, 05 Mar 2021

by Tafara Mugwara

HARARE, Feb. 22 (Xinhua) -- Children of first-generation immigrants are used to straddling two worlds, that of their parents and their home country, and are usually expected to learn languages from both worlds.

However, in many cases, the majority language of their home country triumphs that of their immigrant parents.

In some cases, the heritage language becomes a passive language that is generally understood by the children but never actively used.

A United States-based Zimbabwean lawyer and author Yeve Sibanda said the major challenge that African migrant families abroad face is that children's books in their heritage languages are extremely hard to come by.

This lack of diversity in children's books is what inspired her to start writing children's books "that resonate with boys and girls of African descent."

Sibanda said like many other migrant families abroad, she and her husband must navigate the nuances of raising a first-generation, multi-lingual child.

Out of a commitment to teaching her daughter her roots and frustration at not finding quality, modern books in Zimbabwe's indigenous languages, she decided to write her own book.

Her book "My First Shona and Ndebele Words" is an engaging and easy-to-use picture vocabulary book designed to help readers learn and teach the two primary indigenous languages of Zimbabwe, Shona and Ndebele.

The picture book pairs colorful illustrations with simple first words for readers to learn.

"Traditionally, it's probably been easier for parents to focus on the language in their new home country because learning resources are easier to find," she told Xinhua through text message.

"However, as we see more educational resources in African languages, it becomes gradually easier to teach our kids these languages," she said.

To her, language is intrinsic to the expression of culture.

Besides being a tool of communication, language is also used to convey culture and identity.

Through language, children not only learn about where they are from, but they are also able to learn about their heritage and culture as well, she said.

"It is important for us to embrace our languages because it is a big part of who we are, if we lose our languages we lose a big part of our identity and the things that matter to us as Zimbabweans," she said.

"So it's important for us to have resources that help us to celebrate this, otherwise, our native languages are at risk of extinction," said Sibanda.

With the increasing growth of Zimbabwean families living abroad, there is a growing resurgence of Zimbabweans who want their children to learn their native languages.

The search for greener pastures abroad has seen multitudes of Zimbabweans settling abroad.

It is estimated that there are millions of residents outside of Zimbabwe's borders who were either born in the country or are descended from immigrants from the country.

South Africa is estimated to have the bulk of Zimbabwe's diaspora community, with an estimated two million Zimbabwean nationals living in that country, although official numbers from South African authorities are much lower.

Other countries with the biggest Zimbabwean diaspora populations include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Sibanda said it is important for children of these migrant families to see themselves represented in books.

"I think Zimbabwean kids benefit from seeing themselves in literature because it shows them that they matter, their culture matters, their country matters," she said.

She said there is a dearth of representation when it comes to African stories.

Her work not only teaches children of migrant families to learn their languages but also exposes people from different cultural backgrounds to Zimbabwean culture and traditions.

"So part of the work I am doing is to bring black stories and African stories to the forefront because they matter just as European stories," she said.

On why she is passionate about languages, Sibanda said "I am really passionate about language because I know first-hand how difficult it can be navigating a different culture without a strong celebration of who you are."

Nomsa Zuze, a Zimbabwean woman who grew up in New Zealand, said in many African migrant families abroad, the heritage language is often lost by the third generation due to generational differences between immigrant parents and their children.

She said this is because the heritage language is mostly used between the parents, and children rarely learn to read and write in it.

Tawanda Matende, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe in the Department of Languages, Literature and Culture, said there are a multiplicity of benefits that comes with learning a language earlier in life.

"Introducing a second language to children is most advantageous when it is introduced to them at an early age and in low anxiety situations, containing familiar and easy understood messages rooted in their culture and tradition," he told Xinhua.

Matende said having two well-developed languages is associated with increased metalinguistic awareness, communicative sensitivity and divergent thinking skills.

"Giving children proficiency in the language spoken in their homes as well as the language spoken by the larger community can benefit individuals and society by increasing cognitive skills, humanistic understanding, achievement, economic benefits, linguistic ability, social skills and political cooperation between groups," he said.

Unlike the popular belief that simultaneous acquisition of two languages among children is detrimental to their learning experience, he said there are benefits associated with bilingualism.

"Research has shown that very young children who have developed simultaneous bilingualism are able to discriminate and switch between the two languages as appropriate to the social context," said Matende.

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