A recent conversation I had with a friend brought to mind a concept I had not considered in a long while. The conversation ensued after my friend asked how I pronounced the word ‘Worcestershire’ as in the condiment. While I was quite confident in my ability to properly say the word, my friend promptly informed me that my pronunciation was slightly off. According to Google, I should have said it ‘wuh-stuh-shuh’. Although I didn’t necessarily butcher the word in my pronunciation, the idea of “shrubbing” was jolted to the forefront of my mind. The word is enough to cause someone’s face to flush with embarrassment or another to chuckle as some memory is brought to the surface. It is a concept that most Kenyans are quite familiar with.

You know what I am talking about…You probably have a story or two about how someone “shrubbed”, much to their dismay and the entertainment of those present. Growing up I can recall people using synonyms for shrubbing such as ameshema or ameng’oa. For the sake of those who are wondering what I’m rambling on about; shrubbing is the non-standard pronunciation of English words due to interference of native languages. In this case, our mother tongues. For instance, someone saying ‘liver’ when they mean ‘river’.  During my school days, the typical response to shrubbing was folks roaring in laughter and if it was entertaining enough, it would become the topic of numerous jokes after the fact. Worse still, the shrubbed word could easily turn into a nickname of the person who had the unfortunate incident of mispronouncing the word. This kind of jesting was most notorious in high school. It mostly involved students and at other times some teachers found themselves victims of jokes and nicknames directed at them from the students. If my memory serves me right, majority of the time the perpetrators of the endless jokes were mainly city kids those “born-tao” guys. They are those who English was either their first language or learnt it early in childhood. Conversely, most of the victims on the receiving end of cruel jokes and nicknames were those whose English-speaking capabilities were highly influenced by their vernacular/ mother tongue which was the first language they learned.

This kind of reaction to simple mispronunciations contributed to impeding others from confidently expressing themselves in the English language. Even worse, it led to some believing that the extent of one’s command of the English language was an indirect measurement of their intelligence. Which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Language is a skill in life that we learn to enhance communication, be it verbal or written. Despite the world being more of a global village and languages such as English being more widespread, it doesn’t negate the diversity of cultures and languages. It would be absurd to think that the 7-year-old in London who speaks fluent English is more intelligent than the 7-year-old in Mombasa who speaks fluent Swahili. Those who did not learn English as their first language may experience some difficulties with pronunciation and fluency, but it doesn’t mean they are less intelligent.

As adults now, I wonder how we handle the occurrence of shrubbing in our day-to-day life, especially in the workplace. My high school English teacher said repeatedly that the English language came by the sea and the fish don’t even know it. As strange as the notion of fish being capable of speech is, we understand what he meant. So, at work where do we draw the line between lighthearted moments in relation to shrubbing and downright workplace incivility and bullying. Because (as we all know) there’s always that one person who won’t let a shrubbed word go unnoticed. They will want to make a huge hullabaloo each time a word is mispronounced. Such a habit in my opinion indicates a shallowness that is quite unprofessional. If the main point is clearly communicated the rest is inconsequential.

Here’s the side of shrubbing that is always ignored.  Consider this, the non-English pronunciations are an indicator of the person’s ability and dedication in mastering another language. A person must be at least bilingual for this context of shrubbing to arise in the first place. Being able to speak more than one language is something to be proud of and celebrated, not a cause for ridicule and jokes. Furthermore, it’s quite an eye opener when you step out of the ”kawaida” Kenyan environment and immerse yourself in a place of great diversity of English speakers. How Bolivians, Russians, Nigerians, Indians, Filipinos speak English is different. Their native languages do impact how certain words are said. It would be cumbersome to highlight and make fun of how they all pronounce certain words. And honestly, in such a context you quickly realize that shrubbing is not a thing. Mainly because there isn’t someone there who is trying to make it a thing. If a pronunciation slip happens, you pick yourself up and move on. Most times conversations don’t even miss a beat when a mispronunciation is made. Most people already know what one is trying to say anyway and when needed clarification is sought in a most respectful manner.

Take this as an invitation to evaluate your reaction the next time you encounter shrubbing. What kind of attitude lies behind your reaction? Have you per chance embraced notions that are inaccurate? Then choose to be a kind team player capable of embracing others in their linguistic diversity.