Alakowe, what language can you speak?

I was applying for a graduate development scheme when confronted with the question, “What is your first language?”.

This isn’t the first time I have had to answer this question and all the previous times I’m sure I have answered differently. Why? Well because I am an Alakowe (literate). I grew up in Nigeria and the obvious defining quality of a literate is their ability to speak English. Though the market man may know his sums and from experience learn the skills of communicating with his customers, if he cannot speak English, he is termed an illiterate.

I grew up speaking English, in fact I also think in English, and though Yoruba is my mother’s tongue, I cannot hold an intellectual conversation in it.  Often when I am trying to say something heartfelt, I switch to Yoruba, but then my Yoruba is laced with English words and my English tinged with errors.

English is Nigeria’s official language, and it affords Nigerians, a people of over 300 languages, to communicate and cohabit. Unfortunately, it also contributes to the subjugation of the country’s tribal languages and the immense dilution of its culture.

The outcome is citizens becoming language handicaps; I can speak two languages but perfectly command none.

It was a wonder to me then, when Nigerians went into a frenzy on social media over Commandant Obafaiye Shem’s interview on Channels TV. If you don’t recognize his name, you will the phrase “my Oga at the top”. While it was an opportunity to sink our teeth into someone who at the time somewhat represented  the oh so incompetent Nigerian government, it was also sheer folly for us to laugh at him for using a nuance “Oga” understood by most Nigerians if not all, in the place of the English word, Boss.

Half of us still have our parents seek our assistance in accessing their emails, so that he forgot the dotcom in the NSCDC website address shouldn’t have amounted to much comedy or surprise. After all, Nigeria is one of the technologically backward countries till date.

I also find it amusing that a lot of Nigerians see it as a dignifying attribute to speak English and not their mother tongues.To them, the native language bears a pejorative connotation, one they don’t want to be associated with. These kinds are often called Ajebutters (rich kids). I can only imagine the shock they’d be met with once they step out of the four walls of Nigeria.

When I did step out, I realised that a French man would comfortably express himself in francaise, but apologise about his inability to speak English, so will a Spaniard, a Mexican, an Indian. It was only then I began to realise how the education system in my country short-changed me, how terming my mother’s tongue “vernacular”, and taking the native language class trivially in school had done me a massive injustice. I went online to see if I could take some classes in Yoruba so I can speak it adeptly, and the thought of having to pay to learn my mother’s tongue hit me hard.

The truth of the matter is we all cannot speak English, and a sadder reality is we also cannot speak our native languages. We sacrificed it on the altar of westernisation.

The effect of this is a stunt in creativity. If I think in English, but can’t speak English well, then my thinking is stunted. Like my favourite Russian author Frank Kafka, whose works originally written in Russian has been translated to English, maybe I could be creative in my language if only I had a good command of it, or maybe my ideas will remain unformed thoughts even unknown to me.

What about you? What language do you speak?

2 thoughts on “Alakowe, what language can you speak?

  1. lovely, thought provoking piece about our identity. My vexation is entombed around the fact that we have to pay huge sums to our colonial masters to show that the language they enforced on us has been studied well. Furthermore, you will be surprised that our mother tongue (Yoruba) is becoming an endangered ‘specie’ because all the hard-work people like bishop Ajayi Crowther did to make the language have its own unique identity (to be written, spoken and studied) is becoming an effort in a basket. To think in English makes you an English however stunted, the conundrum is however if you have the opportunity to perfect one way of thinking as well as choosing which.

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