Preserving the Shona linguistic heritage in the Diaspora

A UK-based company MJDK Ltd run by a Zimbabwean has developed the Chii? Shona Language Learning App to help promote the learning of one of Zimbabwe’s widely spoken language among children in the Diaspora and beginners. The move seems appropriate and a pleasant surprise to an increasingly uncommon approach to save African languages from extinction and the dominating influence of English globally. Sifelani Tsiko, our senior writer speaks to MJDK spokesperson and business entrepreneur Jane Doka about their innovative Shona App and its role in combating the extinction of indigenous African languages.

ST: What motivated you to develop a Shona learning App in the Diaspora?
JD: Being diasporans and parents ourselves, we felt we wanted to help our children retain their identity and appreciate speaking their mother tongue. We had to face the fact that the environment in which we are raising our children is very difficult for families to preserve their linguistic heritage which plays a crucial part to some cultural dynamics parents want to pass on. Some children out here in the diaspora find themselves confused in a sense about where they come from, especially if they have never had the opportunity to visit their parents’ country of origin. Although we do appreciate that the diaspora is where they are being raised and will likely settle in their adult years, we felt it was right to present them with an opportunity to learn, appreciate and consciously make choices about their linguistic heritage. Whilst we believe in embracing other cultures and languages since the world is now a global village, we do not believe that our own linguistic legacy should be dismissed as irrelevant in the mixed communities many of us have settled in. We realised through discussions with other parents that we were not the only ones who carry this view. Also, the advent of migration has meant that many Zimbabweans are intermarrying with people of different backgrounds. They also desire to share their language with both their spouses and children. Hence the concept of a Shona learning aid that works with current and widely accessible technology to reach hopefully every interested household in the diaspora, was born.

ST: How easy is it for children in the Diaspora to use the App?
JD: Overally, the Chii?App is very easy for literally all ages to use. We noted that most schools in the diaspora in keeping up with the ever evolving technology, teach children to use the internet. Children are encouraged to learn to use gadgets like computers, laptops and iPads. Moreover, I can safely say that every home has a gadget that connects to the internet, i.e. mobile phone, desk top, laptop and iPads for example. Most children are therefore quite acclimatised with the technology and can easily navigate through the App with ease. Some of the younger children may need assistance but most can navigate through it independently.

ST: So far what has been the response to this Shona App?
JD: The response to the App has been phenomenal and way beyond what we were anticipating. While we expected a positive response we did not expect it to be of this magnitude because we are aware that there are conflicting views amongst some families in the diaspora concerning the relevance of the mother tongue. However, the response has been really encouraging.

ST: Can you briefly explain how this Shona App works? Give examples to help readers understand it.
JD: The App is compiled with plain text throughout in both Shona and English. It works with descriptive images which automatically communicate through visual the thing being learnt about. The App also contains a touch to speech feature where the user taps on the image and the App says the Shona word for the image. Where there are no images the user can tap on the text and the App will read out what the text says. In those parts where there are no images the App contains both English and Shona written and spoken words or phrases so that the user can understand what is being said, either by hearing or by reading. As a separate added feature the App comes with an accompanying gaming to learn facility which is in a fun and entertaining revision quiz format. It comes with sound settings for intriguing play which users can choose to mute or turn off as they wish. The App is currently divided into four sections which are Naming, Things we do i.e. Action words , General Speech and Greetings, as well as Constructing Sentences. The Gaming to learn section comes in as a fifth section.

ST: Do you think this App can also be useful for parents with children here in Zimbabwe to use it to teach their children?
JD: We definitely believe that the App can be a useful tool for parents in Zimbabwe too. Even though it has been made specifically to teach the mother tongue, it can work both ways. Apart from teaching children to take pride in their mother tongue in a safe and entertaining way, it can also teach and develop English to children who are also still learning to speak English. The sections which contain both English and Shona audio can also be very useful in helping children learn quick and easy but effective communication from a young age, even before school going age.

ST: Linguists have estimated that at least half of the roughly 7 000 extinct human languages will be dead or moribund – meaning that children will not be able to speak them – by 2100.
JD: In what way do you think this App will enhance the survival of the Shona language in a world which is increasingly losing linguistic diversity? The world we live in today offers us this privilege that as long as something is or has been on the internet it can be found even years after its inception. We believe that just by being available online, the Chii?App will benefit not only the current generation but also generations to come and will help keep the legacy of the Shona language thriving.

ST: Languages must be preserved because of the knowledge they contain and because the sheer diversity of human languages provides a window on the inner workings of the human brain. Do you have plans to develop more versions to motivate young children in the Diaspora to take an active interest in their mother tongue?
JD: Of course, we definitely have plans to grow and expand our material and to improve both the look and performance of the App as we get feedback from both parents and children in the communities we are out to serve. We are constantly on the outlook, observing the trends and interests of children in the diaspora as well as their lifestyle which is starkly different from that in which many Zimbabwean parents were raised in. There will be more versions coming as we proceed.

ST: Other than just promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, do you plan to promote other cultural elements such as artifacts, cuisine, attire, music and dance that capture Shona traditions?
JD: We believe that from learning the language children will develop the interest to learn more aspects about their culture. We are open to engage organizations which specialize in other aspects that surround the core values of Zimbabwean culture so as to enrich children who are interested in learning more about their heritage than just the language.

ST: What other approaches do you think can help encourage more Zimbabweans in the Diaspora to learn their mother tongue?
JD: Apart from using the Chii?App and other online resources, we are of the conviction that parents play a crucial part in engaging children to learn the mother tongue. The whole aspect of the App hinges on teaching by repetition and this is something parents can also achieve by persistence on their part. Zimbabwean family gatherings and events can also play a part in helping children to get interested in learning their mother tongue.

ST: What do you think are some of the benefits of knowing their language in the Diaspora?
JD: There are many benefits of children knowing their mother tongue. To name a few we can talk of personal identity in a mixed society. Children will not find themselves confused about who they are or where they are from and can identify with their own kind even while they integrate with others. Children can also gain confidence in themselves through knowing their language. We believe that learning their mother tongue will enrich family relationships and strengthen ties with their country of origin should they ever wish to visit or return. Also research has proven that children learning their own language will strengthen their social skills as they too have something of their own to contribute to relationships.

ST: There are several tools available to combat language extinction today – the internet for example. Through the internet, the language can be translated, catalogued and stored but how easy is it to combat the monopoly that English and other European languages have over the cyber sphere?
JD: We are of the opinion that rather than try to combat the monopoly of English for instance, we would rather work with it to reach most of our target groups. If a child or anyone can speak or understand English then we already have a platform to communicate effectively and teach the new language. English and European languages may be a monopoly but their dominance as far as we perceive should not be seen as a drawback but a perfect mode for introducing new languages and themes to anyone in the world.

ST: Do you think it’s important to use recorders to enable Zimbabweans in the Diaspora to record themselves speaking their language to help preserve their oral traditions and history?
JD: We greatly endorse that approach which is why in the Chii?App we have included the use of clearly broken down pronunciation of Shona words, phrases and sentences. By repetitive hearing we will be able to sow some seeds of the language in the user. Anything that is recorded can be easily passed on to generations after.

ST: Zimbabwe has more than 17 indigenous languages spoken in the country. Any plans to roll out other Apps to cover other languages such as Ndebele, Nambya, Kalanga, Shangani, Barwe, Ndau, Tonga and so on?
JD: Yes definitely! This App has set the stage for other much bigger projects. It’s a small step that will certainly open the platform for others to come in and work on Apps to include other languages spoken in Zimbabwe.

Above all, there is no doubt that this App will help spur interest and promote African languages which are being crowded out by the predominant use of English of the worldwide web.

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