"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

Published by the Editor at 9.13am on Sunday, 18 November 2012.

By Kenneth Okpomo. Kenneth, 36, is a researcher with Eagles, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below. *Shortlisted for the NUHA Adult Blogging Prize 2012*


This famous remark was reportedly made by Nelson Mandela during negotiations in the Apartheid era when blacks were embroiled in a heated struggle to break the shackle of racial discrimination and segregation imposed by the separatist regime in South Africa. In this somewhat proverbial expression, Mandela latently (perhaps idiomatically) underscored the uniqueness and importance of language as a veritable communication tool. From whichever angle the statement is extrapolated, its deep meanings become more glaring to the discerning and undiscerning alike. We become more enlightened, and without ambiguity or doubt, come to terms with the Mandiba who as a freedom fighter in the hot days of the struggle was hated by the Apartheid government, which tagged him as a terrorist in order to nail him. But today, Mandela has metamorphosed into a global icon after becoming South Africa's first black president in 1994 and holding office for just one term.

Language, simply put, is a means of communication. A more definitive meaning of the term, as given by Language Development, is that it is verbal, physical, biologically innate, and a basic form of communication. A language that a non-native speaker understands (that is not indigenous to him) could have been adopted as an official language, a lingua franca, or any other language that he has consciously or unconsciously learnt in the course of education, socialization, enculturation, travel, trade, etc. In this case, the man has little or no emotional attachment to the spoken language.

Most probably, he will not share a strong feeling of belonging with the native speakers. The language only serves as a convenient means to communicate - to interact socially, express inner thoughts and emotion, and so on, in the locality where such particular language is widely spoken. Take, for example, imperial Britain which ruled parts of Africa in a colonial era occasioned by the scramble for and partitioning of Africa. Although the English language has been adopted as the official language of many independent African states and has also emerged as the medium of instruction in their schools, nonetheless a vast majority of English-speaking Africans still do not consider themselves to be English people. The real English people also do not see them as English people.

English-speaking Africans and other non-native speakers will never effectively evolve into English men and women even if they take first, second and third degrees in the subject area. Not even if they live in England and eventually acquire British citizenship. This is because they do not share a common ancestry with the English people and, by and large, they do not have a share in the totality of their cultural way of life and normative pattern. So, paraphrasing Nelson Mandela, if you talk to a man (who's not a proper English man) in the English language, for instance, he could easily understand and comprehend what you are trying to say. The neurons in the sensory and motor channels of his brain will process the spoken words and then interpret what has been said to him. In fact, as Neuroscientists emphasize, the neurons in the inferior parietal lobule are particularly multimodal - they contain traits that makes it possible for them to process different kinds of stimuli, including the apprehension of the multiple properties of spoken and written words.

This is as far as it goes. The man's response to what has been told to him will come naturally to him (and independently of the language factor). His reflex reactions may depend on the circumstances and exigencies. But he has the freedom of choice to respond as he deems fit. The English language is just the medium of conveyance of the message; nothing more, it will apparently conjure no external influence.

However, as Anthropologists have noted, language is not just a means of expression comprising phonology, semantics, syntax and grammar. It is much more than that. It is essentially an embodiment of the culture of the native speakers. Language encompasses a people's tradition, folklores, morals, norms, customs, etiquette, oral history, artistic inclinations, world view, belief systems, and all that has been handed down from generation to generation. Language confers a feeling of common origin, ancestry and shared value among the indigenous speakers (even where different dialects exist). Thus language instills a strong and passionate feeling of oneness, togetherness, solidarity and cohesion.

Which is why, as Mandela rightly points out, if you talk to him in his language, for instance, if you talk to a Xhosa man in the Xhosa dialect, that goes right into his heart. If the man is doing something wrong and you tell him to stop, the Xhosa words will strike (if not pierce at the heart of his conscience). The man in question will be intuitively propelled through ethnic consciousness to reconsider his actions and he will, very likely, put a halt to his wrongful deeds.

During the Nigerian civil war that pitched the rest of Nigeria against the seceding Igbo-speaking parts between 1967 and 70, language was implored as a powerful tool on both sides. My father told me how federal troops accosted him in Lagos and accused him of being an Igbo man. At the time, the mere fact of being an 'Igbo' or of originating from the Igbo land was misconstrued to mean that such a person was a traitor. Death was the inevitable penalty. Of course, he wasn't an Igbo man and he declared so. To prove his claims, the troop brought an indigenous speaker of the Urhobo dialect - the language he ought to understand and speak since he claimed to have hailed from Urhoboland. The speaker was told to converse with him in his mother tongue to test the veracity of his claims. He passed the acid test and was consequently spared. A similar tactic was also used on the Biafran side in eliminating real or perceived enemies.

To extrapolate on Mandela's expression with reference to the educational sector, I wish to mention that studies have been undertaken by various stakeholders to explore the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the use of language (the mother tongue) as a medium of instruction in schools. The outcome of an experiment conducted by the world acclaimed educationist and relentless advocate of the mother tongue, Prof. Babs Fafunwa, revealed that teaching children in their native language had the potential of rapidly uncovering their innate abilities, boosting their self esteem and dissuading the drop out syndrome, thus making education a rewarding and worthwhile experience for indigenous peoples. Obviously, for the purpose of creating an easy-to-learn language that is politically neutral and transcends nationalities and fosters peace and international understanding between people with different regional and/or national languages, Wikipedia reckons that L.L. Zamenhof constructed the Esperanto language which was published in the first book detailing the language (the Unua Libro) in July 26, 1887. However this supposed universal language that combined elements of the major languages of the world such as Latin, the Germanic languages, English and the Slavic languages, among others, has not been so popular even though it has a notable presence in well over a hundred countries, perhaps because of its artificiality, in spite of being recommended by UNESCO in 1985 to its member-states.

In submission, I would say I totally agree with Nelson Mandela's expression.


Explore other 2012 blogging prize entries | Go to this year's edition of the Blogging Prizes


Posted by Johnson Akpos at 3.38pm on Sunday, 18 November 2012.

Wow! This is a fantastic write up that seeks to dissect Nelson Mandela's famous expression about the importance of the mother tongue. The writer has used a strong academic and intellectual background to explain the salient points which the Mandiba had implied. This piece has enriched my understanding of the subject matter. It's also very well written with a holistic treatment of the topic. Thumps up to the writer! On voting: I have tapped the 'Like' icon to cast my vote in favour of this essay and the icon won't move. The organisers should advice on this please.

Posted by dorothy agbeka at 8.07pm on Sunday, 18 November 2012.

Simply splendid. Well done.

Posted by Okere Tochi Joy at 1.42pm on Monday, 19 November 2012.

Wow! Such a powerful piece. This is impressive, the writer was able to drive home his point without much ado and in a manner that spelt coherence... Superb!

Posted by Chesa Chesa at 3.12pm on Monday, 19 November 2012.

Very interesting piece. Quite educative too.

Posted by Bamidele Johnson at 11.14am on Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

Really interesting and Educative. I've learnt so much from this little piece. Thanks.

Posted by Ibe Vikiano at 10.01pm on Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

nice piece! hope you win!

Posted by chika victoria at 10.56pm on Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

woooow......... this is unique. its really motivating

Posted by micheal okpobe at 11.03pm on Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

Nice work ken. Kip it up. A voice must be heard no matter were.

Posted by emeka kross odika at 12.15am on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

@kenneth u ar a world class writer....I reali do expect many more like dis frm u....a Genius in d making...men keep it up cos I am so proud of u

Posted by Zara Sandra at 1.00am on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

A beautiful work that shows the. Struggle for supremacy and a view of it's results.... Weldone.

Posted by Uche at 1.02am on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

Absolute masterpiece!

Posted by ikem mojekwu at 9.21am on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

Very good stuff.. H0pe u win

Posted by jeah at 11.49am on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

There's a saying that abinibi yato si ability.that is‎​ somthing u were born with s quite different frm somthin u were able to learn...nice write up ken.keep promoting our own.

Posted by halimah at 8.07pm on Friday, 23 November 2012.

Well written..

Posted by Link Building Service at 5.37am on Sunday, 25 November 2012.

YdAuf1 Enjoyed every bit of your article post.Really thank you! Want more.

Posted by Kukogho Samson at 1.05pm on Tuesday, 27 November 2012.

I found this quite engaging. have to read this again, and probably share with some folks..

very revealing.

the power of language cannot be taken for granted... That is why we get all mushy when we are in an environment where a strange language is spoken and we hear someone talk in our own language.

Posted by Kenneth Okpomo at 2.04pm on Monday, 3 December 2012.

Hi everyone. I want to thank all of you (ladies and gentlemen) who took time to go through my article, voted for it, and posted your comments in spite of your busy schedules. The feedback has been amazing and very supportive. I want to say a big 'thank you' to you. I am deeply inspired and encouraged to go on researching and writing. To Zara, Uche, Johnson, Dorothy, Tochi, Chesa, Bamidele, Ibe, Emeka, Ikem, Jeah, Halimah, Linked Building Service, Kukogho, Chika Victoria, and others who have read the article, and liked it, I can't thank you enough!
@Uche thanks for your strong appraisal (ascribing the article with the status of an absolute masterpiece). @Johnson, thanks for calling the article fantastic.@Bamidele, thank you for learning much from the write-up. @Emeka Kross, special thanks for calling me a world class writer. In fact that's what I’m striving to become - a world class writer like the Chinua Achebes and the Wole Soyinkas. @Victoria Chika, thank you for your equally unique words. @Kukogho, thanks for being engaged by the article and finding it to be very revealing you'd to read it again...You all have been truly wonderful. God’s blessings on all of you.

Posted by Omotola at 3.08am on Monday, 17 December 2012.

Datz gud of u, kip d flag flyin...nice article...

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