Often times, I’ve had parents express to me how hard it is to get their kids to learn our native African languages. This is especially common in homes where the language of communication isn’t the native African language as with many African families in major cities home and abroad. On another hand, hardly have I heard these affected kids express same concern. I mean, why would they? It’s not like speaking a native African language is the coolest subject among their peers from diverse Cultural backgrounds. Well, except it’s one that’s spoken by another kid they’re crushing on, their favourite cartoon character or some other cool factor that can be ascribed to these native languages.
I share in the concerns of these parents for obvious reasons. It’s pretty predictable that in hindsight, many of these apathetic kids towards their root cultures would wish they knew better. Just ask any adult who barely understands his or her native language. I’ve heard listeners call in on local radio shows ranting about their situations; sometimes trading blames as to who was responsible. More often than not, it’s the parents. Notwithstanding the factors contributing towards a decline in our indigenous Cultural values, language remains a key component of our cultural identity. Hence, anything that serves the purpose of stimulating interests in these languages catches my attention.
In a recent trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council, I observed 2 interesting events that are worth sharing with you.
The Carrot and Stick approach
While in North London, I stayed with the Ajiboye family; nine–to-five working Nigerian parents with 2 kids aged 5 & 6. With both kids born and bred in the UK, they had never been to the homeland. While the language of communication in the household is English, the parents sometimes communicate in their native Yoruba language or chip some in while speaking with the kids. There are some things that are better expressed in the native language among other reasons. Even more, with friends like myself around, we spoke a lot of Yoruba. Well, with the exception of the kids. Rather, as we have in these situations, the kids learn to pick up simple words by virtue of this hybrid communication, as I like to term it. While that’s not a bad start in itself, it is limited to a state where the kids understand what’s being said often from repetitions and body language, while speaking for them remains a problem. However, something happened during breakfast one day. The kids were in a hurry to finish up so they could watch one of their favourite TV programs. Easy! Well, not so fast as Mrs. Ajiboye added one more condition: they had to make their request in spoken Yoruba. Ha!
For the next few minutes, I listened intently as the kids tried different combination of words and lines to say in Yoruba, “I want to switch on the TV”. Simple as it seemed, it posed an interesting challenge for the boys. With a little guidance, they eventually figured it out and enjoyed their TV viewing. Nevertheless, it was a comical spectacle for the parents and myself.
I met Ebuka at a British Council organized event one cold night in London. Ebuka, a film director by background is married to an Irish lady. They both have a 5 year old girl, Onyinyechi. As with the Ajiboyes, Onyinyechi is British by every standard with her Nigerian root relegated to her name, what she knows through her dad and the media, having never been to the homeland. What was interesting was when Ebuka shared a scene from Onyinyechi ‘s social life with me. I found it intriguing as follows.
A few weeks before we met, he discovered Onyinyechi had invented a way of screening her friends. He observed this one day while she had friends – all of them full British – over at the house playing. From a safe distance, he watched as the kids took turns in pronouncing Onyinyechi’s name. It was a pretty daunting task with the accent factor. For anyone that came close to pronouncing it correctly, she labeled cool. Whatever cool meant to a 5 year old, he thought. However, what struck him was how much she reveled in her native name. Funny as it sounds, this is a 5-years-old kid who’s basking in the cool factor of her name. Interesting!
In both cases, what I find interesting are the subtle ways by which we can spark off learning among kids. With the Ajiboyes, you could say, it’s a suitable case for families whose kids already have some basic form of understanding of the language. That way, the approach encourages its speaking.
Nevertheless, both cases are perhaps worth borrowing from. The first step in getting kids down this path of speaking native languages is to trigger their interest. With that hurdle cleared, learning should come easier. Try them out and share your thoughts on your experience. Good luck!
This piece was originally published on the author’s Medium page.