Be proud of your mother tongue

Home Away from Home with Abi Adeboyejo

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HAFH2How do you pronounce the word ‘garage’?  I bet you all think you do, especially if you are reading this on the other side of the pond, where this article is published and read by my country people. But wait till you have to speak perfect English all day everyday to a bunch of teenagers who think every mispronunciation you make necessitates a burst of mirth. After years of dealing with being told that when I say ‘thought’ it sounds like ‘taught’, I devised a way of quelling any reference to my accent or pronunciation. I always tell my students from our first encounter that I paid money to learn to speak and write English so I should be excused for making errors.  However, I would not tolerate any such errors from my students in their writing or language since it was their mother tongue and only language. It has worked wonders so far and the kids seem impressed when I tell them that I am multilingual. Okay, maybe that is stretching it a bit, but who is to know?

I can speak Yoruba, which is my mother tongue, and English fluently. I also tell my students I can speak Pidgin English, which is the West African version of the patois spoken by the Afro-Caribbean population here in the UK. They usually ask me to speak sentences for them in both Yoruba and Pidgin English. The fact that a few Nigerian musicians have started to break into the music scene means that some of the kids also know a few words of ‘Nigerian language’ as they call it, but not the kind they should repeat in polite company. One wanted me to translate some parts of ‘Fimile’ by Kas and I had to refuse. Honestly!

Many children of Nigerian origin born abroad can’t speak their parents’ mother tongue, but they sure understand it well, mine included. A few years ago I wrote about language in a newspaper column. At that time my kids could only understand commands and warnings in Yoruba. They knew what I meant when I shouted ‘ki ni oun se?’ in Yoruba and would answer me in English. I am happy to say that their level of understanding is so high now that I can use them as spies to listen to other people’s Yoruba conversations and have them report to me (in English, of course).

I once heard of a man in London who took his kids to see his older sister (also in London). The man and his wife were natives of Ogun State and spoke Ijebu at home. The kids understood the Ijebu language well, but couldn’t speak it. At the time of their visit to their aunt, their dad and mum were having serious problems and their dad and his sister said all sorts of horrible things about the kids’ mum. When they finished, they asked the kids to eat and the kids refused saying they were not happy that their dad and auntie could say such horrid things about their mum. Their dad had forgotten that the kids understood Ijebu well even though they couldn’t speak it!

My 12-year-old niece who lives in America tries hard to use her Yoruba, even though she can hardly speak it. Her mum told me of a visit to the mall recently where they saw a woman who was as fat as a plastic water tank (you know the ‘Gee-pee’ ones?) in a pair of incredibly tight red trousers. My sister didn’t notice the woman but her daughter did, and to catch her mum’s attention without alerting the fat woman she whispered loudly ‘Mummy, wo!’ which means ‘Mum, Look! Her mum burst out laughing when she saw what her daughter was trying to do. My sister said she was secretly pleased to know that she could start to communicate with her daughter in public without people listening in. Shopping would be much more fun.

I guess my point here is that those of us who are lucky to be bilingual should be proud of it. Speaking English is no big deal to people in Nigeria, as our education is conducted in English. However, no amount of speaking English will stop a person who grew up in Nigeria from having a Nigerian accent.  We can try to polish it up as I have had to do to avoid being turned into a clown for entertainment purposes as I teach English children in England but I am not embarrassed by the fact that I have an accent. It tells people that I am bilingual. It means I am well read and well-travelled; a modern person in a modern world.

It saddens me to see that some parents in Nigeria now think it is a sign of wealth and good education to prevent their children from learning to communicate in their mother tongue. I know because I have met many such children on their holidays to the UK and my heart bleeds for them. They will never sound English enough to be mistaken for British children; neither will they have their mother tongue to show off with if people question their accent. I am sure I’d find it pathetic to find a French man who spoke English with a French accent but could not speak French. So why are we bringing up Nigerian children who can’t speak a Nigerian language?

Well done to some Nigerian associations in the UK for putting Yoruba and Igbo language classes on for children of Nigerian decent in the UK.  One of these associations had their yearly Nigeria Day celebrations and got little girls to put on a Nigerian fashion show and answer questions in Yoruba. It was good fun but it also sent a message to other young Nigerian children to learn their parents’ languages and be proud of it because it is part of their heritage.