Yesterday’s Radio 4 programme carried a fascinating little piece on the work of Dr Paul Tench, a retired linguist from Cardiff University. Paul has been helping the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a writing system for the first time.
The twenty thousand or so Shanjo people are but one group in a country of 13.5 million people in which some seventy-three languages are spoken.
Until Paul’s work, the Shanjo had to be content to use siLozi, the official language of Zambia’s Western Province, or English. SiLozi is the L1 (first language) of around 600,000 Lozi people and thousands of others as an L2 (second language).
Why then did the Shanjo people want a written language of their own? This was a question Paul Tench understood very well. having worked in a linguistics department at a Welsh university, he knows only too well what it feels like for people to speak a minority language when there is a very powerful dominant one available.
As the Shanjo people had long wanted to ensure the survival of their culture in all its aspects, working with five farmers, only one of whom had received a secondary education, Paul set about creating an alphabet to represent the sounds of ciShanjo (the Shanjo’s language). So far, the project has been tested on a young Shanjo woman, who was able to read ‘everything without much difficulty’.
Already there is a dictionary and a Bible in the making. Eventually, the project should enable the Shanjo people to record their stories, their poetry, and forms of entertainment, as well as enhancing the group’s standing and sense of dignity in the region.
Even more importantly, the significance of the move for children cannot be understated. As Gareth Evans writes in his piece ‘Taking pride in learning how to write a language for the first time’ in the Western Mail:
“Primary education in the mother tongue is a ‘commodity’ that Wales can be proud of, and can export. The mother tongue in early education enhances cognitive development because it is the language of a child’s thinking, understanding, knowing and learning. It has a psychological advantage in that it is the language that children are at ease in; there is no extra, special effort in attention as there is when a less familiar language is used.”
And, Shanjo? Apparently, it means ‘they used to hunt animals’.