If you talk to a man [woman] in a language he [she] understands, that goes to his [her] head. If you talk to him [her] in his [her] language, that goes to his [her] heart.
As a Nigerian American born in the U.S. and raised predominantly by a Black-American woman, I did not learn my tribal language of Igbo, let alone Pidgin English, and I still don’t have a mastery of either based on the predominantly white, American spaces I encounter. When my brother and I did spend time with our Nigerian father and Black American step-mother, we did not speak Igbo or Pidgin English. For us Africans that grow up in bi-contincontinental homes, identity formation and the acquirement of language and dialects is quite complicated. As I have developed into adulthood, the languages and dialects of Igbo and Pidgin English have simultaneously represented inclusivity and isolation.
It is very alienating and frustrating when you strive to have a connection to an aspect of your identity and are constantly questioned about your authenticity, and/or challenged to prove your authenticity. It’s even more frustrating when language is used to isolate you as opposed to embrace you.
Growing up in the United States in a single-parent home run by a Black American woman, I grew up mainly seeing myself as a Black American. It wasn’t until someone questioned me about the origin of my name or its meaning that I reflected on my African lineage. When I started college, I began to question my identity as an African woman and my connection to the continent. During my undergraduate years, I was given the opportunity to travel to Ghana and Nigeria. Particularly during my tenure in Nigeria, I was shamed for not speaking Igbo and questioned why my father did not teach it to me. Despite my efforts to learn about my Nigerian heritage, I was never seen as Nigerian enough because of my inability to hear or speak the language, among an array of other factors. Likewise in the U.S., there have been occasions where Nigerian immigrants have questioned my identity and authenticity as a Nigerian due my inability to speak or hear Igbo. I do not see myself as any less Nigerian than a Nigerian born and/or raised in Nigeria because of my language inadequacies. While language is a critical part of culture used to connect and identify people, it is not the only or most important trait. I am proudly Nigerian-, Igbo-, Black-, and American- because of my allegiances to geography, family, music, food, blood, history and principles of resilience, hardwork, and strength that have been passed down intergenerationally and across the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s difficult learning new languages as an adult, even with emergent resources to acquire such skills, when you have limited time to study and practice, and limited individuals to practice the language(s) with. I say the aforementioned not as a means to make excuses, but to set a context for barriers that monolingual individuals must overcome to become polylingual. English is the third most spoken language in the world, and American culture, or aspects of the American education system, do not emphasize the significance of being multilingual in comparison to such continents as Europe or Africa. I have read and heard countless anecdotes of internalized ‘language imperialism’ where parents encourage their children to speak predominantly in English as opposed to their native tongue. I have always envied my peers who grew up in homes where both of their international parents spoke the same language and that language was taught to them. Despite its frustrations, what a gift it would have been to grow up in an intergenerational home where a grandparent served as a vessel to pass down language, proverbs, folklore, and wisdom. The lack of emphasis on the significance of being multilingual in the U.S. hinders many Americans who don’t recognize the value of language in fostering cross-cultural relations. As much as language is significant for personal and intrapersonal understanding, I think it’s also important to emphasize that language mastery is not innate for everyone as a skill.
In middle and high school, I was quite apathetic about learning Spanish because most people around me spoke English and the majority of literature I read was in English. I felt no need to master other languages, because language courses were predominantly emphasized and mundanely framed as tools to graduate and matriculate, not as tools for global exploration and cross-cultural relations. In retrospect, I wish I had of taken the mastery of languages and dialects more seriously, in regards to expanding future occupational opportunities and my ability to communicate with international peers, colleagues, and clients. When I was in college, while I studied French and Spanish, had Igbo been offered as a language course, I definitely would have taken that opportunity.
Such Romance languages as Spanish, French, and Italian have saturated U.S. language curriculums for as long as I can remember, and the overemphasis on acquiring these languages remarks on the lack of value paid to such low- and lower-middle-income continents as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One should recognize that the wealth of these lower-income continents in natural resources, knowledge, and brain power was historically exploited and still is exploited by such high-income continents as North America and Europe. Despite this error of many U.S. language curriculums, I am pleased to see that collegiate institutions are becoming more receptive to providing students opportunities to learn languages of the African diaspora, and even mainstream media outlets are diversifying the languages in which the news is reported and internalized.
While mastering the intricacies of Igbo and Pidgin are daunting and challenging, I am always optimistic about opportunities to learn them. If Ta-Nehisi Coates can gain a semi-mastery of French in his latter thirties, I can gain a semi-mastery of Igbo and Pidgin English.