The Nigerian language problem

Posted by Jay in Travel on September 25th, 2015

I was born in Nigeria and lived with different family members around the country until I moved to London five years later. There are many different tribes within Nigeria, but the three largest are; the Yoruba tribe, the Ibo tribe and the Hausa tribe. I am Yoruba but did spend some time in the North of the country where I also learned how to speak Hausa. Moving to London, my parents spoke to me in Yoruba at home. But as neither of them were able to speak Hausa, and I no longer had anybody to practice with, I forgot that language.

If you are of Nigerian descent but do not live in the country I am sure you have heard this before; parents being judged for the fact that their children do not speak their language. Be that Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa or some of the lesser spoken Nigerian languages. While you may be forgiven in presuming that this was just a problem exclusive to the diaspora. I have heard of parents living in Nigeria actively discouraging their kids from learning, or God forbid speaking their mother tongue.

The only language you need to know and focus all your energy on learning and perfecting is English. Yes, the language of our wonderfully benevolent colonisers has taken precedence over the languages of the different tribes in Nigeria. As I am of the Yoruba tribe, nearly all the Nigerians I know are also Yoruba. This problem appears to be specific to my tribe.

To speak English and to speak it well means that you are educated, your family has paid a lot of money to ensure you had the best possible start. Only those that have gone to school would be afforded opportunities their age mates lacked. A language so powerful that it will open doors for you from your mere utterance of it. The English language is elevated to such a lofty position that it is the official language in Nigeria. It was introduced by the British and we have not been able to shake this habit ever since.

The desire and need to speak English is not exclusive to Nigeria and its inhabitants. People from all over the world are trying their utmost to learn English. Governments around the world have invested heavily in teaching their nation English. Any English speaker could live just about anywhere in the world without the need for any qualification other than the ability to speak this most exalted of languages.

But I do not know of any other nations forgoing their mother tongue to speak English and only English. Parents will proudly boast that their offspring can speak only English, the language of opportunity is ready and waiting at the tip of their child’s tongue. Their children have not wasted their time in learning the mother tongue, as that would be ludicrous. All you need to do is open your mouth and bless the uneducated natives staring up at you from below, waiting on you to add new words to their limited vocabulary.

But what do you give up in exchange for seemingly having the world at your feet? What I have found is that even though I speak Yoruba fluently [regardless of my mother’s comments on my jacked up accent], you are closing yourself off from your history. Many older generations cannot speak English but have a wealth of knowledge about Nigeria and it’s history, pre and post colonisation. Why would you want to miss such an amazing opportunity?

To have other people tell you of your own history and ancestors means that they can choose the version they would prefer. A version that paints them in a better, more flattering light. I have heard it said that when an African elder dies, an entire library of knowledge goes with them. And unfortunately, the current attitude amongst some Nigerians to turn their backs on the language means our past will be watered down and then fed back to us.

While it is rather frustrating that I lost a language due to not being around people that could speak with me. I am eternally grateful to my parents for keeping my mother tongue fresh in my mind, and in my heart. I am aware that not all my countrymen will ever consider me truly African, I am glad that I was given the chance to be able to keep that part of my identity alive. Even though my English language skills are much better than my Yoruba, my mother tongue is and always will be my first language.

This is not to judge nor criticise those that cannot speak their mother tongue. If you didn’t have anybody to teach you, it would be an uphill battle to actually learn the language. Especially a language like Yoruba which is quite complex, and depending on your pronunciation you could either be saying “mother” or “punishment/suffering”. And you certainly do not want to make that mistake.

We do however, need to examine this prestige that English holds within members of our tribe. Is learning Yoruba and speaking it so shameful? How is it not something to be proud of, and something that you would want to pass down onto generations? It is true that speaking English will certainly help you with nearly everything you want to do. But should we sacrifice our rich and vibrant history and culture to have these open doors laid before us? As we really do not know what is actually waiting behind mystery door #3.

Have any of you felt a disconnect to your culture/history as you do not speak the language? How have others reacted to you only being able to speak English?

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about Jayon UPDATE: As of 25/09/2015 Nigeria has been removed from the WHO's Polio Endemic List! Having been born in Nigeria, I hail from one of three countries where polio is still unfortunately endemic, the other two being Pakistan and Afghanistan. I had contracted the poliovirus before my ...Read More

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