Do you speak your language?


If you asked my dad what his greatest wish for me was, I think he would say that I get married, and then he would say that I learned to speak Igbo. For the longest time, speaking Igbo was ahead of getting married, but as I progress in age, he’s gotten serious about the priorities of his prayer points :D

We (my cousins and I) once had an intense conversation with my aunty about why many Igbo children in our generation don’t speak Igbo. She is of the opinion that “Igbo people were/are ashamed of being Igbo and thus didn’t teach their children Igbo”. I think this situation is both more complex and nuanced; my father is the proudest Igbo person I know, and yet here we are. I can only speak for my parents and I think at the time they didn’t understand or identify the weight of what was happening. Additionally, Igbo was actually my first language, but when we moved to Lagos my mom was advised to start speaking to me in English or I would fall behind in school.

My aunt is also of the opinion that once a group of Yoruba people are together they default to speaking Yoruba to each other. Since, I grew up in Yoruba spaces, I know that there were Yoruba children in ACO who were in partial-speakers class with me an Igbo child, who only knew enough rudimentary Yoruba to test into that level. I know that some of the Yoruba people I’ve worked with think (and have said to me) that Yoruba people don’t speak their language as proudly as Igbo people and again they cite the anecdote that once Igbo people get together they default to speaking Igbo. If you go into the streets of Lagos, you will realize that there is no shortage of people speaking either Yoruba or Igbo.

I think that if we consider this a problem, then we must also acknowledge that it is a very elitist one and that it is only getting worse. Another aunty (all of whose children speak Igbo) was complaining to her daughter that none of her grandchildren speak Igbo and that she is the only one who speaks to them in Igbo. This was a really heartfelt conversation. And while I think that some of the angst they feel is down to generational differences (for example, cue the question to my dad above: I’d rather cure cancer than learn to speak Igbo, and if we are being honest, there are probably other languages that some adults - not me - might want to learn ahead of theirs) – this notwithstanding, we must ask ourselves what we will have, who we will become if/when we lose our languages? I think we should probably listen to the undertones in what the older generation is trying to tell us.

The one thing everyone in Nigeria will agree on is that irrespective of class, Northerners speak Hausa all the time without first confirming whether the other Northerner speaks Hausa; because it is so prevalent, it is almost a forgone conclusion that a Northerner would speak Hausa.

I’m so lucky to have 1 Yoruba best friend and 1 Nupe best friend – what this has meant for me is that since forever, I have had a front row seat, from where I have been able to observe how different Nigerian cultures live. Furthermore, given that they are my best friends, I never once judged their way of life, it has always just been another (intriguing) way.

It was a given that this son of mine would speak Hausa, what I didn’t realize was that Hausa would be his first language and that this is the difference. I should mention that my other children are being spoken to in Yoruba, but English is their first language – I strongly believe that there is no right way. BUT, if you do desire that your children speak your language, learn what my parents now know, ensure that it is their first language, get their grandparents to speak to them in your language, they will learn English in school, this is a promise. Everything you want for your child (discipline, self-regulation, empathy, handling disappointment, understanding their worth, reading, communicating) must actively and intentionally be modeled from the beginning.

Written in honor of Khalil's 2nd birthday - Happy Birthday my beloved – I love you with every fibre, molecule, artery, neuron in me and I will always be here, involved and present. Fati, you are still doing an excellent job!

How did language go in your home growing up? How does it go in your home now? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.