When I have kids, I won’t speak Yoruba to them and they would never speak it in public. It’s sounds “razz” and uncool. But I’ll ensure they learn foreign languages for easy access to global opportunities” – This was me a few years ago. Shallow? I agree! It took me a few years to understand the concepts of multilingualism and how it had nothing to do with losing my cultural heritage.

I recently had a conversation with my well respected friend, Dara Omotoso on bilingual education and his replies had some piercing truths about linguistic imperialism and our self-induced ignorance. He went on further to attribute his success in language learning, to his childhood exposure to Yorùbá, his native language. I was thrilled when he agreed to share his thoughts with my readers.

Over to you Dara.

While doomscrolling recently, I came across a viral tweet. (Yes, doomscrolling is an actual word!) The viral tweet was a response to a trending question. The initial tweet read: “What is that thing which is considered classy for a rich person, but trashy when you are poor?” One of the responses which had resonated with numerous twitter users was: “Being Bilingual.”For many passive twitter users like me, we know that the real joy of viral tweets lies in the comment section. And so, I took the leap, put on my detective glasses and slid into the comment section! I wanted to know what was it about being bilingual which produced that array of contradictions. What did I find out? Wait a second, let me tell you another story! 

Earlier this year, an unlikely video of Nobel Laureate, Wọlé Sóyínká, resurfaced on the internet. In that video, the literary icon, had granted an interview in flawless French. It was a real aha-moment for many. As usual, the comment section brimmed with infinite enjoyment. “Wow, I didn’t know he could speak French. I love him even more!” A user had exclaimed. But it wasn’t WS’s command of French that excited me. It was the memory of a childhood story, my father told me.

A story about a young Nigerian academic who, attended a public lecture in the early 90s. Wọlé Sóyínká had delivered the keynote address. This young academic had slogged his way through the address. He had struggled to keep up with Professor Sóyinká’s complex coinages. Words he didn’t understand. Words which blurred his understanding of Prof’s address. Then, suddenly, most attendees of the lecture burst into great laughter. Apparently, Prof. had made a funny remark. Our young academic, unsure of what had sparked that comic moment, and risking social exclusion, also joined in this unifying moment.

He let out a loud laugh and only stopped when everyone else did.But even after that, the woes of our young academic weren’t over just yet. Prof. had engaged in post-lecture chatter with some of his colleagues. Their exchange was largely in awe-inspiring Yorùbá— burnished with many Yorùbá anecdotal references. At this point, our dear academic friend, didn’t know which of his frustrations to give voice to. That he had struggled to keep up with Prof’s lecture. Or, that, contrary to what he thought, the Nobel laureate was equally vast in his native language— Yorùbá.

Yet Monolingualism had no power of its own. It was only through its appropriation by the emerging middle class which it gained relevance.

This dilemma isn’t a stand-alone event. It is, in fact, an anecdote of the anxiety that trailed my childhood experiences in the early 2000s. An era, in which, social mobility was inextricably linked to acquiring western education. That also meant being fluent in English. It was also a time when, the budding Nigerian pop-culture scene, was heavily shaped by American models. To be a cool kid in the early 2000s, for example, meant to faultlessly recite the lyrics to 50 Cent’s In Da Club at one of those numerous birthday soirées, welcomed by cheer and applause from an apparently thrilled audience.

 Still grappling with the scars of a not-too-distant colonial past, in which British invaders assisted by missionary cohorts, helped to besmear precolonial practices as “traditional”.This all-consuming romance of the Nigerian socio-cultural scene with American cultural icons dealt the final blow to already staggering, “traditional”, social practices. And with this American takeover of the social scene came its slick corollary—Monolingualism. Yet Monolingualism had no power of its own. It was only through its appropriation by the emerging middle class which it gained relevance. At a time when, numerous, young, upwardly mobile, South-Westerners broke away from what they considered “traditional” practices; impeccable (American) English became at once the proof and prerequisite for this departure. 

If anything, my early exposure to Yorùbá actually boosted my understanding of the other languages I learnt.

I still have vivid memories of parting with my pocket-money -10 naira at the time-, in the private primary school I attended, each time I dared to express my thoughts in “vernacular”. Vernacular, was, of course- Yorùbá, or any other African language deemed capable of stalling my progress in English. We paid fines for speaking Yorùbá! But being the son of a Yorùbá translator, and having mastered two other foreign languages (apart from English) within the last 6 years— I know that this is hardly true! If anything, my early exposure to Yorùbá actually boosted my understanding of the other languages I learnt. My students know that I place a heavy premium on making allusions to their native languages when explaining knotty German grammar concepts! Research has even shown that children can learn and process up to five languages simultaneously before the age of 5.

When most millennials stress the importance of raising multilingual kids, they are mostly referencing English and, mostly European languages. There is an implicit economic foreshadowing at work—”The future will be multilingual.” Well-paying tech jobs will require additional (European) language skills. But if only economic insecurities stoke us to acquire extra language skills, we’re not doing anything new! Trans-Saharan trade networks -as far back as 14th century- in precolonial Africa relied on multilingual exchanges between various African societies.

No one should feel shame for expressing themselves in whichever language they choose to!

Stories abound of these merchants of yore who could communicate in as many as four languages. We are not that special. To return to our initial anecdote. A large number of people who commented under the thread had a few things in common: Their countries of origin had endured varying levels of colonial experiences; the legacies of these experiences still hovered over their day-to-day interactions. Many a person lamented that they had felt humiliated by public reactions whenever they dared to speak non-western languages. This broke my heart. But it also reminded me of how we have internalised colonial models of domination and even dispense them with much worse ruthlessness.  No one should feel shame for expressing themselves in whichever language they choose to! 

While I hope that Yorùbá and other native African languages continue to remain sufficient in their own rights as effective media of expression. Anchored by both changing and historical modes-de-vie—not only as fetishes of Western, capitalist imaginations. We should also remember that: Older (precolonial) African societies were also multilingual. But they opened themselves up to the mutual benefits of cross-cultural economic encounters. They didn’t have to stifle their immediate linguistic environments in a bid to profit from the alluring promises of trading with their neighbours. We shouldn’t either.

Dara Omotoso

Dara Omotoso

“Hi! I’m Dára. I’m different things to diffferent people. I work as a cultural programmer by day. My evenings are usually for language teaching and reading tons of dense philosophy books. In between planning and teaching, I make time to write about philosophy, religion and sociocultural issues.”

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