Art, Culture, Books and Travel

Going Back To Your Roots- Why We Have Abandoned African Languages

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For many Children born to African parents in the UK, English is usually their first language. This is because  African parents living in the UK try to get their children to understand English first before speaking their own ancestral language to them, by which time, they’ve lost interest in learning the language.

Some may argue whether or not there is any need at all to be able to speak our ancestral language when you live in country where English is the lingua franca. Unlike Spanish or French or German, you don’t get any brownie points for specifying Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba as a second language on your CV so, why bother?

According to Kola Ogunbayode, a Nigerian who Founded ‘Learn Yoruba Lessons in London’, a school which specialises in teaching anyone how to speak Yoruba, parents are failing their children by not speaking their native language to them.

Kola or Ogbeni Kola as he likes to be addressed, started out with an initial project called the Milton Keynes Yoruba Children’s Club which was created with the aim of teaching children born in the UK how to speak Yoruba. ‘We wanted to put and end to Parents using English as the language of instruction with their kids and to also dispel the myth that learning another language affects their English.”

‘This is wrong,” he says.

Inspired by the challenges of raising his own kids to know and understand their culture, Ogeni Kola says this is the main reason he began the lessons in 2012 in the first place. Since then, the classes have grown with weekly lessons going on in different locations in London including Shepherds Bush and Leyton.

Kola Ogunbayode Outside the Pan African Centre in Leyton photo: Fadekemi Sulaiman/Naija Living UK

Surprisingly, the Yoruba  tutor who’s lived most of his adult life in the UK says most of his students are adults rather than children and they aren’t just Nigerian either, a significant number of his students are of Afro Caribbean descent. This, he attributes to the fact that adults can make up their own minds about whether or not they want to get in touch with their roots by learning how to speak their ancestral language while children are influenced to a large extent on their parent’s decisions.

“It’s always good for children to learn how to speak their language from a younger age, so that they don’t grow up to regret not knowing like a lot of the students who come to our classes,” says Kola.

“If you cannot speak your own ancestral tongue, you’ll feel like there’s something missing and there IS something missing, he adds.

Asked why he thinks African parents avoid speaking their native language to their children,  The Unilag graduate blames what he calls a ‘Colonial mentality’ that spans generations. His hypothesis is that from the time of colonial rule where Missionaries and traders banned Africans from speaking their native tongue or vernacular as it was called, generations of Africans have begun to see their own ancestral language as second-rate, therefore, prioritising English first.

Unlike African families, most other ethnic minority groups tend to teach their children their native language first before English. In fact, in East London, where there’s a huge concentration of immigrants, Children registering into schools specify English as a second Language with many speaking their parent’s languages frequently.

Ogbeni Kola clearly approves of this as he explains that children learn more in the first 3 years, which is when he thinks parents should be teaching their children Yoruba. He argues that once they get into Nursery, they will be sure to catch up because English is the main language spoken in school.

So what goes on in a typical Yoruba class in London? 

Out of curiosity, we sit in for one of Ogbeni Kola’s classes. The setting for the lessons are very academic but playful as the centre where we catch a lesson today is in Leyton at the Pan-African centre, so at least you get an African vibe right from the entrance through to the classrooms.

Photo: Fadekemi Sulaiman/Naija Living UK

A typical class consists of about 5-10 students and the lessons are both narrative and demonstrative as Ogbeni Kola actively engages the students in role play to test their understanding of the day’s lesson.

Some of the lessons re-enact typical scenarios one would experience in an African setting; for instance, how Africans converse when shopping at the market. The salutations, the haggling and the farewells. It proved for both an interesting and hilarious watch to see people with British accents trying to say ‘è ló ni’ (how much is it?) or ‘se da da ni’ (how are you?)

Still, one must wonder why a grown Briton would want to study Yoruba when there are more exotic languages available. One of the students on the day was Tobi, a dentist who  makes the trip to London from Kent every other weekend to attend the classes.

Having begun the course last year, Tobi is quite proud of his Yoruba skills as he can now understand the language and make conversions, something he couldn’t do before.

‘There are many people like me who don’t know how to speak their language,” he tells me. “I just decided that I wanted to get in touch with my roots and I wanted to be able to understand when people were speaking Yoruba around me.”

Tobi tells us his parent’s initial reaction to his decision was confusion as to why he would be interested in learning to speak Yoruba, but, seeing how much progress he’s made so far, they actively encourage him to carry on with the lessons and now, his girlfriend who also cannot speak Yoruba comes along whenever she can.

Considering the fact that British born kids are very unlikely to speak their ancestral language outside of their homes, why is it so important for them to learn it?

“It’s a matter of identity,” says Ogbeni Kola. “I strongly believe that being able to speak your own language gives you an identity and it builds self-confidence too”. Besides, many studies have linked language with cultural identity so being able to speak that language indirectly teaches you a lot about the culture too, he adds.

This is of course all very easily said and done but how can African parents be encouraged to teach their kids how to speak their language from childhood. The answer says Ogbeni Kola lies in routine. Incorporating everyday words from your language into their vocabulary and using your own language as the language of instruction at home also helps.

If you’re willing to take more drastic measures, the tutor says you could try a method he used in his own experience – banning English completely for certain periods in the house, thereby forcing everyone to converse in the native language. As Ogbeni Kola himself points out, this might prove tricky when the poor  child attempts to request for Burger and chips from Macdonald’s or tries to tell you he would like to watch Peppa Pig.

Watch excerpts of the interview on our You Tube channel.

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