Dateline: Bellatera, Barcelona, Spain.
On a cold and suspect sunny Thursday afternoon, Adewale a colleague from Lagos State, Nigeria, came to my school office to see me. We occasionally meet to compare notes, talk about our country and exchange ideas on sundry subjects.
At 179.8cm, with ebony black skin, a husky voice and moderate body type, Adewale is easily noticeable, especially in a campus with less than one percent Africans. He sashayed into my office as if he owned the place. It’s an air of confidence that Nigerians are commonly associated with.
My other schoolmate Wei from China, with whom I share office, stood up and extended a handshake to Adewale. As I replay that moment in my head, I have to say Wei really looked like a school principal what with his spectacles, upright posture, meek face and unmistakable respect for the visitor. Unexpectedly, both men hit it off by having a very lively conversation.
Two days later during lunch in the cafeteria, Wei asked me a puzzling question. “Why were you speaking English with your Nigerian friend?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, initially. I mulled over it for a second and then realized almost instantly that Wei was speaking mandarin all the time with the three Chinese ladies beside him. The dots connected. It made sense now. Majority of the people in China either speak or understand Mandarin the official language, although there are minority languages such as Cantonese, Tibetic, Uygur and Mongolian.
I tried to explain to Wei that although, Adewale and I are from the same country, we speak different languages. His mother tongue is Yoruba from the Southwest while I speak Igbo from the Southeast. The official language in Nigeria is English and we do not understand each other except we consciously learn the other person’s tongue. Wei sat there bug-eyed, starring at me in wonderment. Then he muttered: really? How come?
I went on to explain that there are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria. It’s an incredibly diverse country coupled together in a marriage of convenience by the British during their colonial adventure in Africa, to satisfy their imperialist ambitions. I spoke about the balkanization of the continent by Western nations at the Berlin conference in 1884/5, without any regard for the more than one thousand indigenous cultures that had lived there for centuries.
The consequence was that people with the same language and culture sometimes found themselves separated by artificial borders created by colonialism, ending up on the other side of the border with a totally different nation. He was able to wrap his head around the brief history lesson by the end of lunch.
I understand that Chinese people generally do not have the faintest idea about Africa. The Chinese government is aggressively pushing into the continent in search of raw materials to power its expanding economy as well as business, yet it’s still a mystery area to the common man. This is a topic for another day. Let’s stay focused.
On a train ride from Barcelona to Bellaterra the same week, I encountered a hoard of young talkative and bubbly Germans. They were speaking German, obviously. It dawned on me that it is quite common to hear people speaking their mother tongue – French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, etc. Instinctively, I decided to pen this article.
What’s in a language? Should we teach our children our languages in Africa and elsewhere? Or should we resign ourselves to the raging influence of English, the language of business and commerce worldwide?
African history on colonialism is intricate, which his why a country like Nigeria has English as its official language. There are three main local languages spoken in the country namely Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Others abound.
Personally, I think it’s valuable to learn one’s tongue. I grew up in a household where my parents spoke my language. I did not learn it in school. I believe language is part of one’s identity. It’s a window into a people’s culture, life and ancestry. It gives one the permission to participate or be part of a culture because it’s akin to a code.
If you make an effort to speak French for instance, the French are more welcoming. In Barcelona, I have been told that speaking Catalan ‘opens doors.’ It’s possible to insulate one’s self by dwelling strictly in expatriate circles. But if you really wish to go beyond being a fly-by tourist, speaking Spanish and/or Catalan is non-negotiable. Certainly, there’s an unspoken connection that occurs when two people speak the same language. I will quickly add that it’s not a guarantee in all circumstances, though.
Besides, think of all the African proverbs and how powerful they are in the language of origin. In fact, some of them can’t be translated literally in English. Also, being bilingual can’t hurt. I believe it’s healthy.
When I was growing up, some teachers acted in a way that suggested there was something innately wrong with native languages, which were often referred to as ‘vernacular’. I think that term was carried on from colonial times. Speaking ‘vernacular’ could attract some sort of punishment. This evokes a sense of pity, whatever the idea was meant to achieve.
I have cousins who do not speak our language. Why? Their parents spoke only English to them. This is the case with certain kids who grew up in the cities. Some associate it with class or status and/or do not want their children to have their native intonation or sound like ‘village boys and girls.’
I have heard arguments that this may be a sign of inferiority complex. There may be other reasons as well. Maybe psychologists can weigh in. It will be interesting to get a professional take on the subject
Poser: have you ever heard a French man speak English? He voices it with his heavy accent so proudly. This is food for thought.
In conclusion, a friend whose native tongue is different from that of her spouse told me that her husband now insists that their children must speak at least one local language. She’s struggling with it. My answer was, speak your language at home. Kids are brighter than we give them credit. They keenly soak up goings-on around them without hesitation.
What does language mean to you? Do you believe many languages will go extinct? Which tongues in your neck of the woods (I mean all over the world) are dying?
Please share your two cents in the comment box. Enjoy!