Should We Ditch Our Languages?

 

Faculty of Communication Sciences, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Photo Credit: Chiogor Ikokwu

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!

22 Comments

  1. Language is definitely more than mere expression… it carries one’s identity in its core and despite the ‘citizen of the world’ notion it is still essential to hold on to one’s roots before deciding to expand your branches…however I am a strong believer in the merits of speaking as many languages as you can because not only does it open doors it further enriches the mind and soul… a very nice piece keep it up dear

  2. We should never give up and keep alive our native languages as they are the mirror of our souls. Thé Carribbean author Patrick Chamoiseau wrote about the dilemma of writing your secret dreams in the colonial words… (Écrire en pays dominé), it’s quite a challenge but if you don’t even know your mother tongue, part of your identity is lost forever. Mixed culture is a chance as long as you can master both part equally without complex. We should never qualified a mixed person as 50%-50% which means that wherever you go, you’re always a foreigner. If you feel home in the two countries, so you are 100% where you belong. I feel 100% European and 100% African!

  3. Dear Constance it was very pleasure to meet you. We have this point in common the importance of comunicación, thank you for let me share my experience and knowlodgment, hope to see u again in Mexico youwill be
    Be very welcome.

  4. Without negating any of the pros of language, i think it’s very pertinent to say that language has the real capacity to divide especially in the context of a nation. Without a common language amongst people of the same country, true nationhood is almost impossible to attain

  5. Good work, yes many languages are already going into extinction in Africa and you have captured most of the reasons in your write up. Again, we as a people must ensure more than anything if we want to preserve our languages to speak our mother togue to our children at home.

  6. Whaooo!Brilliant write up

    Common Language bring closeness and unity among people or nation

    Thumbs up to you my darling friend Constance like a sister
    Never expected less from you.

  7. “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.”
    You nailed it! Mother tongue is everything. Those who deny their children the opportunity to be fluent in their mother tongue are doing them grievous psychological injury. There is no reasonable ground for doing that.
    Language is a primary vehicle for self-expression and portrayal, the more easily if it is one’s mother tongue. Ditching one’s mother tongue is ill-advised. In fact it has been proved by several socio-scientific studies that ability to speak one’s mother tongue enhances self-confidence. Every one of my children speaks Igbo, our mother tongue. The best way to ensure that, as you observed, is by making the mother tongue a principal means of communication in the home. That I did a lot while my children were growing up. And I thank God I did!

  8. British colonialism has established English as the global language taught in the schools of nations. Constance tells a common tail of arbitrary establishment of borders; typically in the partition of India by Montgomery and an English man who never set foot in the partition regions and only a matter of a few weeks in India itself.
    I am a Scotsman and English is the national language. We do have Gaelic as the historical language but it is practiced mostly in the “highlands” and little in the “lowlands” where the vast majority of the population live.The reason for this is that the lowlands were more anglified over centuries by wars and political and economic manoeuverings. Gaelic is much different to english and it is not taught in schools as compulsory, certainly in the lowlands. Nor is there a great demand for it.
    It is the increasing demise of regional accents mainly by the influence of the media, particularly TV and radio, that is so sad to see. Establishment “proper” english excluded regional accents for a long time. This has changed more recently but there is still conscious or unconscious bias amongst employers, for instance.
    As for parents preferring english in the home rather than the local language could this be motivated by desires for career advancement for their children? Could language preference for english be linked to social advancement and a child of colonislism, rightly or wrongly? Discuss.

  9. Language is the actual connection between you, your past and future generations. It is the medium that identifies who you are and where you belong. Imagine when you speak your native Ibo, by your dialect the Ibo speaking can tell where you are from to the nitty of your village oftentimes. Recall even some names are peculiar to certain languages to the level of clan or village too. It is the language that tells it.
    Sadly, Nigeria is just as you observed too complex to have an indeginous lingua franca. Where are you starting from and which languages do you cocktail without having sentiments attributed to it. Some will never ever learn such a common language that perhaps has some elements of languages from “enemy” territory!
    Yes many languages are going into extinction. Your Ibo and my fulfulde(Fulani) are among those at highest risk. While English dominates conversations down south of Nigeria, Hausa has overshadowed every single language up north. Interestingly, Hausa is one of the fastest growing languages across the West and Central African sub region!

  10. Interesting blog Fatimah. Do you think this language dichotomy is based on religious or economic power differences or both?
    In the UK English has gradually overtaken the various regional dialect-related unique words common in the first half of the 20th century and before. Mores the pity. Accents, although remaining, have been softened by the prevalence of english in the world and internal media. Undoubtedly, economics with the UK being one of the richest countries is the cause despite its decline in world influence. It can’t be politics as regions are fighting for self-government more than ever.
    Old Scottish as expressed by our national poet Robert Burns in centuries past has some great words that give full expression to their meaning….try this for size…bahooky meaning your bum….skinny malinky longlegs meaning a tall thin person….lang may yur lum reek meaning may you live long and stay well. Lum is chimney and reek means smoke e.g long may your chimney smoke…mony a mickle maks a muckle meaning saving a small amount soon builds up to a large amount. ..we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns meaning were all God’s children, nobody is better than anybody else….dinnae teach yer granny tae suck eggs meaning don’t try to teach someone something they already know.
    All these phrases were used jn the 20th century and still understood today if less often used. Millions more.
    I will finish with a quote from Robert Burns …..a man’s a man for o’ that meaning no matter who we are or what we do all are to be respected as an equal.
    Cheerio the noo meaning goodbye for now 🙂

  11. Interesting topic Chiogo. I think we as Nigerians should do more to learn at least the major languages in Nigeria so we can speak to our fellow Nigerians of other ethnicities in our indigenous languages as well as in English which is the lingua franca. Most of my friends from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and other African countries speak their indigenous languages to each other as well as English.

  12. Language is culture and that is something we can never run away from, we should learn to speak our native and official languages with much confidence where ever we find ourselves. I hope this platform serves as the voice we need to educate ourselves(from different countries) and also learn more from each other.

  13. My position: We should not ditch our native languages because it is wrapped with the cultures and values of the people and understanding your values and culture gives you the right foundation in life.This is also very key to the psychological balance of a human being,because it is when you know where you are coming from culturally(via your language) and otherwise that energises you to press on to where you are going in life.
    However,the role of the woman and the mother who used to be the fulcrum of impacting values and ability of children to speak native languages has been altered with modern working arrangements of career mothers.
    For the man and the husband of the home,he has always been a leader and moderator not the real driver of impacting values in kids.So,in as much as I am in support of appreciating and speaking native languages,humans of this generation should be creative enough with ideas to match the rapid changes in the home structure in order to achieve this lofty goal.

  14. Language is an identity,a unifying force and a bridge across other social barriers. Therefore, it is an asset and a tool for national development and cohesion. It enables interaction between our human and natural environments hence any society that ditches it’s language will invariably lose it’s identity.

    The power of language could be seen in the Tower of Babel story in the Bible where God had to halt the ambition of men by making them speak different languages thereby breaking their unity of purpose to reach Him in heaven through the instrumentality of the tower they were building. So, language has potent force that can drive humans to accomplish incredible things.

    Part of the challenge of being educated in foreign language is that students hardly relate to the deeper meanings of words. I recall vividly as a secondary school student, my English teacher was teaching us Possessive Pronouns(mine, yours, hers, theirs etc) he did everything humanly possible to make us understand to no avail. Out of frustration, the teacher said, ihe enwe enwe in Ibo language and like magic, every student understood what he had been labouring to explain for a very long time.

    My take is that if science and technology can be taught in various indigenous languages, African that has been lagging behind will eventually catch up with the rest of the world. I said this because scientific laws are universal and not limited in space or time. If science text books can be translated into local languages and all those scientific laws and theorems explained in language people relate with, underdevelopment which remains the bane of Africa will be a thing of the past.

    Finally, people should be proud of their of language, cherish it, promote it, preserve it and pass it on to their future generation by teaching their children. That way, their language will not go into extinction. For language is a desideratum for national development.

  15. Language represents an index of thought shared by a people of common origin. It’s expressions showcases identity, uniqueness and oneness. We’re fast losing our heritage and identity as a people due to globalisation. However, our pride in Africa and Nigeria in particular should be how we could hold dearly to our tongues. Most Nigerian languages are becoming uncherished part of communication.

  16. It’s certain that the importance of language especially, the mother tongue can not be over emphasized.
    Language promotes culture, unity, love, understanding and progress. It also gives sense of belonging and assures safety when you find yourself in the midst of people that speak the same language in a far country.
    Obviously, people interact and communicate freely and easily if they speak the same language.
    Therefore, learning and speaking native languages should be encouraged in order to preserve culture and promote oneness among people, and never to be ditched.

  17. Mother tongue brings out the homour in you. A friend of mine once told me she cannot afford not to marry an igbo man. I asked her why? She said she cannot risk not speaking igbo on a daily basis. That some conversations is better explained in vernacular than English. Its good to speak your languge. My dad write so many unpublished articles in igbo language as a media practitioner and its fun and educative reading them. I have learnt a lot from those articles and i feel like publishing it.

  18. Great work Chiogor. Language is key. I have always loved languages I’m glad i speak Igbo and l love everyone’s comments.l speak lgbo to my children. Some are fluent and others struggle with it. They will learn eventually. I love the diversity of opinions these issues you write on. This is a forum to learn so much. Im glad to be a part of this blog. I love to learn and l desire to learn more languages. Good job Sis.

  19. Hi Chiogor, my answer to your question is simply NO, with capital letters! We should definitely support and encourage local languages or dialects. If not, then the only alternative is to see them disappear…

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