Learning My Mother’s Tongue
My mother sings in Yoruba constantly, I can always understand some of what she is saying but mostly I am lost in translation. One day she taunted me with “Do you know what I’m singing?” then answered for herself with a dismissive, “No you don’t” whilst laughing to herself and at me. Something in me just snapped and I retorted back “HOW CAN I KNOW SOMETHING THAT YOU NEVER TAUGHT ME?!” that shut her up quickly.
For those of us born away from “home” and not lucky enough to have parents who wanted us to speak our language, we are missing a major part of our identity or at least that is what a part of me feels. I grew up in London and obviously there is no real reason to speak Yoruba unless I am at home, however my parents did not take the time to teach me and I don’t think I ever showed a real interest apart from when I was 7 and asked one of my aunties to teach me the Yoruba alphabet as I was convinced once I knew the alphabet I would be fluent in everything else…obviously that was not the outcome.
Indeed as I have grown older, completed my education to Degree level, and settled into my career I have had no real need to speak my mother tongue, apart from something within me which feels that I am missing a part of me, the Yoruba me that never got a chance to express herself fluently as she was born in another country.
Trying to speak Yoruba as a child and now as an adult is very difficult as Nigerians love to laugh in your face and ridicule you, my sister was once told she sounded like a “broken record” when she was trying to practice. There is no encouragement or support within our own community when you try to practice, no allowances for mistakes in pronunciation or grammar. Instead people laugh at you and turn you into a joke which of course makes you shy away from ever speaking out loud in anything other than familiar English. Who wants to be constantly laughed at when they are trying to learn? I’m sure if my secondary school French teacher had laughed during my French Mock GCSE I wouldn’t have gone on to get an A.
So then is it my fault or is it an issue with Nigerians and other Africans in general? Don’t they want their children and friends to learn and embrace their culture or would they rather we remain outsiders, left on the outer circle of this inner club of tribal speakers. Or is it that part of our identity as the Diaspora is our English accents and African names, these may give us a whole new identity.
All I know is that I feel like something has been taken from me, like I am missing a part of myself, the sassy Yoruba part of me that the English language just can’t comprehend.
How to deal with the laughter
If people feel that they have to right to laugh at you or ridicule your attempts at speaking your heritage language, ignore them and don’t give up. Surround yourself with people that will support you and practice with you. Over time these hyenas will stop laughing and will actually be impressed with the progress you’re making.
If you are on a journey of learning your heritage communicate with your family, let them know that now you want to learn, you are ready and would appreciate their support. The best person for me to practice with is my mum, she may be annoying but she knows Yoruba better than anyone else in my inner circle and anyway she was the first person I ever spoke to in my life so is probably the best place to start.
Start from scratch
Even though I can understand a lot of the language I still feel that for my speaking it is best if I start from the top, almost like a child learning a new language. Before you can run you must crawl, otherwise you run the risk of falling flat on your face. Go back to the basics with the alphabet, numbers and greetings. Use resources like YouTube and online dictionaries, there are a few out there that give a comprehensive outline to basic Yoruba and other African languages.
Be as African as you are
Don’t shy away form your heritage culture. Embrace it and it will embrace you back. Cook and eat those foods that give us our shape, wear the native dresses and head gear, “gele” whenever you have an event whether it be social or professional. Keep a network of friends that you can identify with on a Diaspora and African basis. Watch the films and listen to the music as much as you can, the more we support it the more we can help it grow which can only ever be a great thing for the African economy. Immerse yourself in a culture that is too rich to be forgotten.