Where are you from? What language do you speak?

It’s been a minute. Being away from this beloved space for a whole month has made me realize how “busy” I’ve been recently. I’ve missed writing here, but for the love of all I hold dear, I can’t seem to find the creative strength to write a new piece. #writersblock. And so I have dusted this up from my drafts. It’s a post that should have come up sometime in August, but I never got round to it. Old but gold; to me anyway. Enjoy.

When I was about to begin secondary school, father made a rule at home: We were all to speak Igbo and nothing else. We took it for one of those rules that never lasted. It took one brain-resetting knock on the head from Father to an unlucky scapegoat for us to know that this rule had come to stay. Smh #Nigerianparents

In this day and age, one might ask, “what’s the need of learning a language that won’t pay my bills, probably has no value on the global scale, won’t help the situation of the country, won’t help me progress in my career, and probably will not add anything of value to me personally”? A good question, but one which I will not even attempt to answer. I will only try to appeal to your reasoning.

I can only say my point of view, and invite you to chime in. My belief is that when the gazillion languages in the world were created, there was a purpose for it. Language is an intrinsic part  of every culture, and you cannot claim to be a member of a culture when you have no interest in the language.

I find it weird when I see children of people who live abroad speaking Yoruba and Igbo and Hausa fluently, while homegrown children cannot make a complete sentence in their language. The worst part, I have noticed, is that 80% of these “team no native language” children do not even speak English correctly. Shame. It’s a different thing if you have decided to renounce your heritage, after all, there are tons of people in the UK and the US who try everything possible to rid themselves of everything that identifies them as  Nigerian. I have nothing to say about this lot; I’m not proud of the fact but I’m sure they have their reasons.

Say, we’re in a gathering of young people from different parts of the world, and it gets to the social part where we get to introduce ourselves and tell a bit about where we come from. Jean easily introduces himself as French and can speak his language to prove it, Juanita is Spanish and very proud of the fact, easily speaks her native language , Bill is the only native Englishman, but knows a sprinkling of German, Lee is Chinese, and speaks nothing but his native language at home. Last but not the least, comes Obi, who speaks nothing but English. He says he is Nigerian, he answers an Igbo name, has Nigerian parents, but has nothing else that links him to his native land. Okay, maybe I painted that scenario but, now you see what “rootlessness” can mean.

What irks me to no end, is the fact that some parents deliberately prevent their children from learning their native language. Why, in heaven’s name? I remember someone telling me with a proud smirk “I don’t speak Igbo, you know”. I don’t know if she expected me to start jumping for joy. Ngwanu, clap for yasef! 👏👏 There is a pride of association when you belong to  a certain tribe or group of people, because regardless of the ills they are known for, there must be something good about them. My Igbo brothers are known worldwide for being very money smart, even if it means doing illegal stuff. There is almost always an Igbo name when criminals are being listed abroad for crimes like drug peddling. That’s still not enough to blind my eyes to the awesomeness of being an Igboman, knowing my history and culture, and having good background to drive positive change for the future. I remember reading what Adichie wrote on tribe and language (paraphrased) :

I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came”.

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We have absolutely no reason to feel that our language is inferior to any other language in any way, be it Yoruba, Igbo,  Hausa, or any other Nigerian language. True, maybe the Igbo tribe is made up of little more than 30 million people as against the rest of the billions of other people in the world, but that should be more reason we would want to put the language on the map more boldly. Pride of identity, isn’t it? I am speaking for my own language, in this instance, but I’m aware that this is not an exclusive ill. What we lack is a sense of identity. I get it. Nigeria is plagued by so many problems and no one would want to be associated with such failure when away from home. But, really, when all is said and done, it’s also not cool, losing your identity in a world where people are trying hard to hold on to the shreds of theirs. Your mother tongue is a treasure that should be preserved. According to fountain magazine,

Mother tongue is one of the most powerful tools used to preserve and convey culture and cultural ties. Children who are unaware of their culture, their language and their history will lose confidence in themselves, the family, society and the nation to which they belong and will have no other option than seeking an alternate identity. A child will associate himself with the language and culture he knows best…. Parents should find ways to help their children maintain and improve their mother language without neglecting to give affirmative messages and keeping positive attitudes about other cultures. We must not also forget that we live in a multicultural society and we should teach our children to learn about other cultures and respect them as well.

Note that being fluent in our language and knowledgeable about our culture and history should not in any way affect the value of other cultures in our eyes. I, personally, have a great respect for the richness of the Yoruba traditions, and the pride with which they display them locally and globally. I am not even as fluent as I would like to be in Igbo; a couple weeks ago an elderly client of mine whom I’d come to respect a lot told me a proverb and it took me a few minutes to unscramble it. Made me appreciate the language more, I tell you. One new proverb added to my repertoire.

I also discovered that many parents are quite clueless. I mean, if you grew up never having travelled to your hometown, knowing only bits and pieces of your mother tongue, and being ignorant about the tradition of your own people, it goes without saying, that your children will be even more clueless. At the liaison office of my state here in Lagos some weeks back, I witnessed a complicated situation. A young man(very handsome if I might add)  needed his state of origin certificate, but did  not know the town he came from. I was dumbfounded, to say the least. Even after doing some research and almost trying to trace his ancestry😁, we were stuck. He was raised by a single mother, and over the phone she was almost as clueless as he was. Eventually, after like a hundred phone calls, a relative hundred times removed, arrived and helped to rectify the situation. I was pproud of one thing though. Despite never having been home, he could manageably speak his language. It’s never too late to learn, anyway. First of all, I believe the stereotypes have to be dispelled.

1. Speaking your native language fluently does not in any way make you less sophisticated. I actually find my native language, Igbo, very sexy. Ignore the weirdness, it’s just me. Doesn’t mean I find the phonological interference funny when I hear people speak Igbotic English. Contradictory, no. There’s a balance somewhere in between.

2. Speaking only English or whatever predominant world language, without knowing your own native language, is not a sign of being knowledgeable. You actually get better at other languages when you have a good grip of your own language.

That said, how do we ensure that we don’t raise a bereft generation Z?

1. Making your native language a language of love, rather than a language of strife. I remember that as kids, mother spoke Igbo to us mostly when she was mad at us and wanted to scold us. It made us respond with fear, rather than interest. But after years of travel and meeting people back east who spoke nothing but Igbo to us, we saw it as a way of life. I dream in Igbo and I think in Igbo frequently. Father also had a habit of telling us Igbo folklore, featuring “mbe”, the tortoise, and his cunning ways, and other animals like “agu” the tiger, “odum” the Lion, “enwe” the monkey, and “Enyi” the elephant. Good times😍

2. That brings me to the second point: travelling to your hometown as frequently as possible. I probably learnt more Igbo proverbs eavesdropping on my father’s conversations with his fellow kindred men than I learnt in Igbo class. Following mother to the local markets in the village also helped us learn many colloquial terms we would never have come across on our own.

3. Reading to them in your native language. In the year that father made the law about speaking only Igbo, we began a daily rotation of the Igbo Bible at morning devotion. After stumbling for months over the words, we became much more fluent in reading Igbo than most of our peers. Go dad!

4. In the case that you also do not know the language, learn with them! It’s never too late.

I realize that this article is about as inadequate to exhaust a topic as sensitive as this one, as taking a basket to the stream can be, and so I invite your contributions. I’d love to hear from you.

Nke nwere isi, enweghi okpu; nke nwere okpu, enweghi isi.  An Igbo proverb which means: The one who has a head, has no cap, and the one who has a cap, has no head. –  Author: probably one of my ancestors. 😉 

Sincerely, Chibugo.