African Languages Spectra Speaks

What Kind of African Doesn’t Speak Any African Languages? Me.

AfropolitansLast year, I attended a conference that brought together African thought leaders. In a session about African identity, we explored the question of whether one could claim to be African without being fluent in any African languages. A passionate, and near disruptive debate ensued almost instantly.

What Language Do You Speak? (aka Do You Speak “Us”?)
I’ve had this conversation about language and identity time and again with Africans I meet on my travels. My afropolitan (i.e. world citizen) accent throws them off – a mix of American, Nigerian, and what’s often mistaken for British diction, simply because I enunciate my Ts.  (Perhaps it’s the remnants of attending a British-run primary school; not likely though.). Bread-breaking usually comes to a halt until the matter of my accent (origin) is cleared up. They simply must know which language I speak so that they can place me in one of two boxes: one of us, or one of them.

When I tell the cultural gatekeepers that I’m from Nigeria, and my accent is the result of living in the states for the past 12 years, they’re still not satisfied. “Are you sure you weren’t just born there?” they ask, “You don’t sound like you grew up in Nigeria.” I usually respond by asking them what a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria sounds like, then hear some variation of “Like the people in Nollywood movies.” And when I tell them, I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m not an actress but an activist, I’m Nigerian through and through–I just went to the states for university, they deliver the kicker, “Well, prove it. What language do you speak?” The minute I respond with English (“Oh…”), it’s all downhill from there.

To Speak or Not to Speak: Assimilation vs. Accents
African ImmigrantsFrom tensions in Spain over mandating Spanish (versus indigenous languages like Catalan) to U.S. debates over bilingual education and attempts to ban speaking Spanish at school, the issue of language is a sore spot for many communities. Such language restrictions are often seen as direct attacks on minority cultures, especially for black immigrants who struggle to affirm their cultural heritage in the absence of their native language. Yet, ironically, immigrant parents in the U.S. are less likely to teach their children their native languages, for the purpose – or rather, the sake – of easing their assimilation into English-speaking culture.

The latter scenario resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a father who wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Agbor (a region-specific dialect of Ika), because his father had outlawed the language being spoken in the house. My grandfather–who worked as a civil servant during Nigeria’s colonial era–had valid reasons for doing so. In those days, speaking “proper” English meant you got the “good jobs,” which meant increased access to resources, and an improved livelihood for one’s family. Sadly, even though my father openly resents never having learned his family’s language, his wife–my mother–refused to teach me her native tongue, Igbo, for a similar reason.

nigeria educationColonialism did a number on Nigeria’s education system; as I was growing up, public schools were plagued with lack of resources, frequent strikes, cult violence, sexual harassment, and prostitution. Hence, my mother’s desire to see me succeed meant equipping me with tools to ensure I could thrive outside of the country I called my home. For instance, I would attend an international British-run private school, where white teachers would single out the only other black kid in the class for not pronouncing “stomach” correctly ( “stuh-muck”, not “stoh-mack” apparently); only an American or British university would do; I would not learn my native tongue until I spoke English “perfectly” and no longer risked picking up a “bad, Nigerian accent” that would make it harder for me “over there.”

You see, both my parents studied in Los Angeles in the 70s; on top of the (incomprehensible to me) racism of the time, they also faced American imperialist views and discrimination against “foreigners.” My mother was repeatedly rejected by employers for speaking too “harshly”, eventually forcing her to give up pursuing her dream career in television. It’s no wonder that every morning in my early childhood, my parents would wake up at 5 am to tape Satellite episodes of Sesame Street…They believed (or hoped) that watching British and American English programming would teach their children to speak “properly,” so they wouldn’t have to give up on their dreams.

The Blame Game: Colonialism, Forced Migration, and “Bad African Parents”
The Warmth of Other Suns - Black MigrationFor a long time, I resented my parents for robbing me of learning both my native languages. Later, I resented Nigeria for being so poorly-run that my parents couldn’t see me thriving anywhere but outside of it. Now, as I think about the players who created the environment I was raised to escape–who concocted a system so cruel it culturally orphans children for its own purposes, it’s become much harder to keep directing anger at my own family, and my own people.

My parents shouldn’t be crucified for acting in full awareness of the unjust systems that police indigenous cultures: the colonialist rubble left behind in Nigeria by the British Empire, and the resentment of Britain’s imperialist younger brother, the US of A, towards foreigners. Their fears were rational. Even today, my Puerto Rican partner, who manages a Spanish-speaking client support team at work, comes home at least once a week to vent about some caller’s rude reaction to a supervisee’s accent, dismissing them as un-educated, or ill-equipped to perform their jobs because they perceivably don’t speak “proper English.”

Still, while many immigrants are forced to sacrifice native language fluency, it’s important to note that similar negotiations around language, identity, and yes, accents, don’t just play out within the context of the migrant Diaspora. Many Africans living on the continent don’t speak their native languages, either. And, their reasons aren’t so different from their estranged brethren.

Black Immigrants in the US | Source: AP

In Nigeria, for instance, as a Delta-Igbo person living in a state dominated by Yorubas, I experienced much discrimination at school: regular tribalist diatribes from Social Studies teachers, punctuated by stereotypical Igbo impersonations from classmates.

The ethnic tensions that permeated my school dated back to when Igbo people had attempted to gain independence from the political mess the British left in Nigeria post-independence. These attempts, the result of colonial powers leaving certain ethnic groups in power over others, led to the Biafran war and genocide. The war had a lasting legacy: many Igbo students at my school didn’t speak their language (openly) for fear of being socially ostracized. Speaking, or at least understanding even broken Yoruba was a way of appearing more socially acceptable, to assimilate and survive.

Policing Africanness: Language, Globalization, and Cultural Access
African Colonialism

As is the case with many other colonized African countries, in South Africa, for example, the 12 official languages are the result of white men sitting down at a table, drawing squiggly lines around the region they wished to claim. They didn’t care about the diversity of peoples living there: not when they declared Afrikaans the official language of schools during apartheid, and not now when discussing the “under-achievement” of black youth while ignoring the impact apartheid’s indifference to Africa’s diverse cultures and languages has had on the struggle to reform education.

By the way: Afrikaans is not an indigenous African language, its origins date back to Europe settlers who spoke Dutch. Yet, there are South Africans (coloreds and blacks) who only speak Afrikaans or English due to similar circumstance e.g. migration, globalization, interracial adoption, etc.  Are they “less African” than the Black South Africans who speak indigenous languages such as Xhosa? Or Zulu? What about white people who migrate to Africa and learn to speak local languages? Are they now “more African” than Africans who do not, yet have been living in Africa  since birth?

Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture

Contemporary Africans and African Diaspora in Design and Culture

My purpose isn’t to debate who is more African than whom based on language fluency (or even geopolitical circumstance). On the contrary: I don’t understand how anyone can cherry pick a single aspect of our culture as the arbiter of “authentic” African identity: Language. For sure, it’s important. But so is indigenous spirituality, traditional garb, family values, the arts. Culture comprises many elements, thus it makes no sense to police cultural belonging– cling to such a divisive hierarchy, based on the single factor of language, especially considering the lasting effects of our colonial history, and the impact of globalization on contemporary African culture.

I am also not using colonialism as an excuse to lessen the importance of learning our native tongues; language offers us a very obvious, easily detectable signal that someone is either part of our community, or not. You know this if you’ve ever walked into a Dominican bodega and had to ask for something in English, then watched as the eyes computed, instantly: “not one of us.” Furthermore, in many African cultures, the parts of our history that haven’t yet been erased or revised are passed down to younger generations, orally. In political protest, Fela Kuti, father of “Afrobeat”, and one of Africa’s most celebrated music icons, wrote most of his songs in pidgin in order to connect with the lay man who didn’t speak “proper English.” His son, Femi Kuti, has carried that tradition forward, and with that, Fela Kuti’s legacyIndigenous languages safeguard our stories in their hidden meanings and subtext, so much so that the mis-translation of a single word can create a completely different interpretation of history as we know it, and we’d literally lose ourselves.

Rise of the Afropolitans: NNEKA

Perhaps that’s why we stubbornly stick to fluency in “our mother tongues” as the yardstick for measuring “Africanness,” “our-ness,” “us-ness.” Perhaps the tune about real Africans being able to speak their mother tongues is only sung in protest against the hegemony of our colonizers’ languages. But is spiting them reason enough to spite each other? By perpetuating the use of a single cultural marker to create an hierarchy of Africanness, aren’t we simply deploying the same tools colonizers used to divide and conquer? Aren’t we essentially continuing the work the British Empire started?

We can do better.

There are a myriad of other identity markers that reveal the extent of both our sameness and uniqueness and make up the diverse African cultures that span the globe. Africa is complex–Africans, even moreso. Let’s not trade in our shared heritage for the exclusivity of an unjust social hierarchy. Let’s not , as our colonizers did, draw borders around poorly constructed monoliths. Our just protest for an Africa with linguistic agency must not turn us into the same masters of imperialist dogma we’re still yet to hold accountable.


Update: Line which initially said there exist South Africans who only speak English or Afrikaans has been updated to contextualize loss of indigenous/mother tongue language fluency happening due to globalization, migration, cross-cultural adoption, and other factors so as not to perpetuate that as the norm. (Thanks MR for helping me clarify!)

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  • Chidinma Obi

    Very timely and important piece, Spectra!!! Both my parents are Igbo, but my first language was definitely English. By the time my parents started advocating for us to speak Igbo, the damage was already done. I am learning to speak Igbo better, but I’m far from fluent. As more Africans like me actively attempt to reclaim and celebrate our traditional culture, our attitude as an African community should be to EMBRACE, ENCOURAGE and TEACH. Not to disparage and discriminate. If we let only those fluent in our native tongue speak and lead, how do we benefit from the education, exposure, and wisdom from the Africans in diaspora who want to contribute but don’t speak the native tongue??? We don’t.

    • Spectra Speaks

      Wow! I had no idea we had such similar experiences. So funny. I do remember when my parents decided it was “time to learn Igbo” but it was too late, and honestly, we didn’t really *need* to learn it. It’s not like if we never learned it, we would travel to Europe and not be able to ask for directions because everyone else spoke Igbo expect us, and thus we would perish! Lol.

      On a more serious note, I really appreciate your comment about our attitudes as Africans towards *other* Africans needing to stem from a place of community love and compassion. It breaks my heart to see how harshly marginalized groups go on to judge each other, while our oppressors go unmarked, straight chillin on the sidelines watching us bicker. Trying to get Africans in my circle to admit the British empire/colonialism has something to do with this mess is like pulling teeth! They’d rather blame our parents. I find that to be such a shame.

      Meanwhile, Diaspora aren’t the only ones not speaking native languages. It’s a problem with peeps on the continent as well. Even I had to remember, “Hey! Coming to the US had nothing to do with this. I wasn’t speaking the language even before I left!” Hence the reflection, then the post. Thanks for reading. It was a long one :)

  • godwyns

    Interesting piece and well captured; but a few misplaced blames by my perception. Apologies. The ‘Colonizers’ are not to blame. This issue dates back to time immemorial. If anything, the Family – like yours and mine – is to blame. As you rightly cited growing up in a Yoruba dominant region, Igbos felt ostracized in schools; I can assure you that as an Igbo growing up in Aba, Abia State, Hausas, Yorubas and others including Ibibios, Efits, etc [must have] felt the same. I had a few of them in my secondary school in the 90s and also a Delta-Igbo boy, then my classmate who suffered greatly because his Igbo isn’t clear to the majority ‘central’ Igbo; surprised?. On one hand, I count it as inferiority complex, on another, I think not. Language is a right, hence a choice; thus should be respected for the individuals and what they are comfortable speaking, whether inherited or learned. I was brought up speaking Igbo and English concurrently although with a stronger emphasis on English. Today, after 10 years living in the UK, my Igbo is purely rusty and becoming more difficult for me [to revert into when required]. Am I bothered? No. But yes, I get the same judgement. But for me, it adds to the fact that the world’s biggest fear, migration is always with us. Human community is fluid and has been from the beginning of times and language is one of the markers of that. Regardless of the rejection, the fear, the segregation, the “us-ness” and what have you, the people in America, Africa, Europe, etc may not speak today’s language in another thousand years. They very probably will not as, if you research, you’d find out that the people of pre-historic ‘Albion’ did not speak English, let alone as we know it today a thousand years ago.

    • Spectra Speaks

      Thanks for your perspective, @godwyns:disqus. I agree that the people of the world (and our languages) will continue evolving, hence even more reason that the clinging to language fluency as measure / gauge for some ‘level’ of identity is outdated, and ludicrous. But respectfully, I disagree with blaming families. In my view, blaming families who made a conscious decision to prioritize the colonizers language for the sake of seeing their children succeed is no better than blaming African-American slaves for discouraging their children from reading/learning proper English to spare them the experience of being brutally disciplined or even killed. We can’t consider the decisions made by older generations who were in negotiating survival in a colonial system out of the very context that warranted such a decision in the first place. As for reference the minority of Yorubas/other ethnic groups in minority across the country, for me that is just as moot as white people in the US living in “black” areas claiming to suffer to racism. Sure, life can be uncomfortable for the individual, and I wouldn’t trivialize anyone’s experience; but to liken the discomfort of a few of your classmates to the systemic way Igbos were forced into hiding/exile after Biafra, and even after that had settled, deal with the stigma in a country that was run by Hausas/Yorubas wouldn’t be just or sensitive to our history civil war.

      What’s interesting about all of this is that this same phenomenon (loss of indigenous languages) is shared across continents, with old Spanish-speaking and French-speaking diaspora wrestling with the same issues. A number of Asian and Latino folks I’ve spoken to discuss being shamed into never learning their languages under similar circumstances. The purpose of this piece, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t to go back and forth about language, but place the debate about language in larger context so we can be more tempered in our approach to each other. In my view, colonialism played (and continues to play) a huge role in the devaluing of African languages, including the “inferiority complex” you mentioned; it didn’t get there on its own.

      Food for thought: you have to call someone ugly before they feel ugly. And after years of being called ugly, you don’t wake up one day and all of a sudden feel beautiful.

  • Spectra Speaks

    @creatrixtiara:disqus Sigh… I don’t even know where to begin. I hear you. There is always space in our narratives as diaspora to mourn the loss of some level of intimacy (I don’t choose to call it ‘connection’ because, by way of this loss, the awareness of this loss, we are always connected in my view). This is why I get frustrated with people who casually uphold the notion that the Diaspora can be separated so clearly from its origin, that there is some hard line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which exists in all moments. That simply is not true. I get told I speak really good English by Americans who are ignorant of the fact that Nigeria was a British colony. When I travel through Africa, people assume I’ve never lived on the continent, that I’m first generation born abroad. And even first generation Africans born abroad, who’ve experienced their adolescence here don’t really understand the layered challenges that I face as someone who came when I was much older; my experience in the U.S. is much more similar to their parents who started from scratch then they who’ve benefited from a generation in their family completing at least one ‘lap’ around the unequal opportunity race. (I’m referencing this video here:

    But that’s another post for another day. Mainly I wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences. And I look forward to reading your post. :)


    I totally related to this insightful piece!
    As someone who has been told I don’t “look African” or that I’m “not really Nigerian” because I was born in the U.S., I’ve often felt I was caught between two worlds—balancing my Nigerian heritage and American citizenship. Language is only small part of that balancing act.

  • Lizwe Nondabula

    I can relate on so many levels. When I lived in South Africa, I was
    constantly criticized for not being a ‘true’ South African because I
    couldn’t speak Xhosa or Tswana. It was very frustrating. My family has
    such a rich history that I was proud of (and still very proud of) but
    because I couldn’t speak my mother language, I felt like I wasn’t a part
    of it or my family. At one point, I just began considering myself an
    American just to avoid that feeling of shame and criticism whenever I’m
    told I’m not saying my name correctly. To echo Chidinma Obi comment we,
    as an African community, definitely need to embrace, encourage, and
    teach not disparage and discourage. Great piece Spectra.

  • Patricia Schor

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article.

    • Spectra Speaks

      And thank YOU for reading. Much appreciated given that it was a longer piece!

  • Eknor

    A great piece well written. I grew up in a Yoruba household in East London; I was born in Britain but once you stepped into our home you would think you were in Lagos. We ate Nigerian food, watched Nollywood (before it became popular – if you know about Papa Aluwe then you’ll know what I mean), listened to Shina Peters and Salawa Abeni (Wiz Kid has nothing on those guys) and went to parties that went on until 5am! We wore native clothes without being forced, we wore english clothes without feeling strange. In essence I am a British Born Nigerian (BBN as my sis says). I never had a sense that anything was wrong – my parents would speak to us in Yoruba but not in such a way that we had to converse so most of the time we spoke in English it was, I suppose a part of being in London. I understand the language fully but am not fluent in speaking it. However as I grew older people and their limited and judgemental behavioural patterns got in the way. The hurtful (and sometimes) hateful comments started when I was a teen…”You’re not really a Nigerian”, “You should be ashamed”, “Just speak your language”…it was like a slap in the face and as I got older for a period it really hurt. I recall a situation when someone who thought I couldn’t understand Yoruba proceed to insult me at a party with her friends…the look on her face when I let her know I could understand every single word! PAHAHAH! As anyone who knows me knows that I am a proud BBN, where some of my Nigerian born friends don’t even like certain facets of our culture, the clothes, the food, the history; for me its a natural part of who I am. I visit Nigeria every 4 or so years…going more frequently than some of the people who have criticised me. I cook Yoruba dishes with flair, am happy to show respect to my elders (kneeling at the right cue etc) but I am also proud to be British, drinking more tea than should be allowed for one person and support Liverpool FC. I was born here and it is one of my homes (Nigeria is my home too). However the constant judgement from my so-called Nigerian countrymen(and women) has made me wonder, fleetingly, why I am so proud to be Nigerian. Some people have been so uncouth about it. Well like much in life one cannot allow ignorance to block ones authentic self. Language is only one part of being culturally identifiable and I will not anyone take away my love for Nigeria.

    I love my red passport but I love my green passport too! LOL!

    • Spectra Speaks

      I love everything about this comment! So much Naija pride — so refreshing! I feel you on never thinking the fluidity was anything to make a big deal about until other people started using it as an excuse to throw jabs. It’s a shame. Culture evolves over time; it’s so silly for people to try and define it. As I alluded to in my piece, I believe some of the aggressive policing comes from the fact that much has been stolen from us as Africans, yet ‘culture’ is something we cherish and hold very dear, even when the west writes about us, treats us as though we’re incapable of uplifting ourselves. Unfortunately, cultural pride becomes dogma when we use it against each other in this way — jabbing at /invalidating others who do not fit our narrow views on what we think our culture should encapsulate. Here, it’s language. But in other arenas, it’s sexuality (“Africans aren’t gay) or some other form of sexism (“Nigerian women must all get married in their 20s and have children so they can be grown women.”) And what happens when we each don’t fit? We start to fragment and cement the legacy of the British and French, even long after they’ve left.

  • The Bride

    This piece called out to me. I am an Indian born and raised in India who only speaks English fluently and comfortably, though I live in Hong Kong now. I struggle with the other Indian languages (I use “other” because English is officially considered an Indian language, heh, although this would puzzle many Indians). Not just my parents but my grandparent on both sides spoke English as a first language, though my grandparents could also speak the language of their ancestral place (Goa, a Portuguese colony) and one of my grandmother grew up speaking only Portuguese. I have to keep explaining this to people, even in India, as a reason why I don’t speak Indian languages fluently and that English really is my “mother tongue”. I don’t feel terribly culturally fractured except when people ask me what my mother tongue is and then look skeptical when I say English. It would have been nice to be able to speak an Indian language, but would it have helped to speak the language of my ancestors… probably not. I’d have been better off mastering the language of the place I grew up in Mumbai, or even Hindi (the supposedly pan-Indian language) except I didn’t because the way they’re taught in schools is under the assumption that you’re hearing it at home already, which I wasn’t.

    I’m not entirely on board with the blame the colonisers either. It might have been that way back when, because I’m not sure in which generation my family “converted” to English, there might have been some violence involved in the process of giving up the local language, but by my parents generation speaking in English was entirely comfortable. And it is a lingua francua of sorts among the middle class/upper middle class in India since there are so many different languages. It has also served to as one of the tools in leveling the caste system which has kept some Indians at the bottom of the social hierarchy for centuries.

    But more to the point, now that there are no colonisers and quite militant regionalism promoting local languages, I see that the poor in India desperately want to learn English as a ticket out of poverty. I see it as a function of a global world where English has become the lingua franca. Is this a bad terrible thing? I do love languages, despite or maybe because of my monolingual state and I hope that the smaller ones survive, but I also see the convenience of everyone in the world being able to communicate easily, and the desire of economically marginalised people wanting their kids to join that communication.

  • Spectra Speaks

    Sigh. The cycle continues. Trends towards isolation or “purity” often don’t end well. Yet, I empathize with policy makers who feel they’re acting as protectors of culture/history. This is particularly sensitive with indigenous populations given that many languages are fast fading from contemporary society. But, then again, languages have been disappearing (and evolving) for a while… maybe we should let go, know that it’s okay. We’ll still be here. Our spirits and memories and stories and art can carry what words in our mother tongue may cease doing so eventually.

  • Haingo

    Good topic to bring up. Going from the claim that language is only a fraction of what constitutes a culture, then for someone who doesn’t speak the language, they are not fully African. But then, that goes for not wearing the garments, not eating the food, not dancing the dance, not listening to the music and so forth. It gets unnecessarily complicated. To go back to the language issue, I think it is the most integral part of any culture today and within African countries, communicating the right way and person to person contact means more than the music, the food, the dress, which are all products of hybrids of our colonial/postcolonial history. I honestly can’t think of any other cultural signifier and marker in anyone’s culture which is stronger than language and communication. It’s a shame not to try and speak your language if you can, it is also a great unifier between the diaspora and those on the continent, particularly through media. Though it’s fashionable to speak English, French, Spanish and all these other ‘international languages’, France, America, England set strict policies to preserve their languages, but why don’t we Africans care to preserve ours abroad and at home? We don’t have to neglect other languages. Africans have a complex when they go abroad, they either want to affirm or deny or both, but you can’t call yourself African if you don’t want to know about that part of your history, the part where meanings were constructed through languages and where cultural signifier and referents were made. Knowing our language can open so many cultural doors, we can begin to read and appreciate authors who write in our language, we can listen to music written in our language, we can travel within our countries, we don’t have to be afraid to meet people from our same communities because we might not understand them, we can watch movies in our language. It can be our secret, like the way you’ll say something and no one else will understand, I always find that amusing :)

    • Spectra Speaks

      A fellow pan-Africanist! Or actually let me not assume. I just got all excited about your enthusiasm for Africa’s empowerment and cultural preservation. In short, I concur with the majority of your comments regarding the *treasures* that are African languages, and the unique connection/gateway they apply to our culture. Where I strongly differ is in a few areas:

      1) The Africans in the Diaspora aren’t the only ones who aren’t speaking African languages. Certainly their reasons are more likely due to forced migration, assimilation in English/French/etc-speaking western states etc. But Africans *on the continent* are wrestling with similar problems. So constantly railing against Diaspora who don’t speak their languages doesn’t make sense to me.

      2) The entire point of my piece is to highlight how we Africans blame *each other* for not speaking our languages. Sure, there are always people who eagerly abandon their cultures of origin for foreign ones (or ones available to them, that they feel they have a better chance of being part of, is cooler, whatever). But, there are many Africans who don’t speak their native languages out of circumstances brought about by colonialism, migration, and globalization. To continually speak on this issue as if it’s their fault is insensitive and misinformed.

      3) Actually, people DO connect deeply without indigenous languages. The Diaspora send over 40 billion dollars in remittances to the continent every year (that’s more than US foreign aid) out of a sense of connection to their home countries. Many of them do not speak their languages, but were raised within the culture, whether at home or abroad. I recognize the appeal of language as the ultimate marker. In fact, in some ways I do think it’s the most significant as you say. My point isn’t to try and measure who is more or less African but to show how ridiculous it is that we are attempting to do that in the first place.

      I would love to be able to learn to speak Igbo fluently. But given where I’ve been living, the nuances of growing up as an ethnic minority in Nigeria (where our language was further devalued) that hasn’t happened. To compare Africans to the French or even the Chinese, who have NOT had the same economic power or cultural agency that other states have had doesn’t make sense given our global positioning these past few centuries… where we’ve literally been forced to learn languages other than our own just to avoid being left behind.

      Now, it’s “learn Chinese” it’ll take you places. Learn Spanish. The cycle continues. I think many African countries/indigenous cultures are struggling to preserve their languages in part because there exists no significant economic motivator to use them. That’s a sad reality, but it’s also an opportunity to ask ourselves if we’re each willing to push for the preservation/more fluency of our languages in younger generations strictly out of cultural pride. I say yes :) But I think many others alienated and hurt /ostracized via the way language has been used to dismiss them as African might say no. And can you blame them? After all, they’ve been called “unAfrican” by other Africans for so long, why demand they all of a sudden prove that they are by caring about cultural preservation? #justathought

      • Haingo

        Pan-Africanist indeed! Great remarks by the way!

        However, remittances are sent by our parents, sometimes through hometown associations, which does require an ‘indigenous’ connection of some sort. Our parents send the money, they speak the language, they have a tie to their villages, communities or close relatives. Remittances are also sent by ‘freshies’ who’ve left to come study in higher education. I think remittances will decrease when first generation diasporans will be ‘in charge’ because we have a less stronger tie to the motherland in that way, we have different mentalities where we choose to take care of the people closest to us, we have the whole ‘charity’ begins at home mentality and home can be London, NYC, Paris etc… Unless we start involving ourselves in the politics of remittances and knowing how to do it right or maintaining relations with our cousins, aunts and uncles etc… we will find alternatives to connecting to the motherland such as sending money to local or international charities on the ground or going back and maintaining close professional networks. A lot of my friends back home are english speakers, we maintain our networks in English. I still really believe that communication still has a big role to play in this, whether it be in our language or a foreign one.

        I totally understand your point about Africans in Africa not speaking their languages, I am one of them, and am a ‘victim’ of the ‘unafrican’ label. I schooled with expat kids and american missionary kids in Kenya, but I got tired of not being able to answer back in my language (Malagasy – Madagascar) to my mom and also I got tired of not being able to get involved in conversations with other people in the Malagasy community. So I learned, I asked questions, i’m still learning, but it’s possible, it’s a wonderful thing and it faciliates my trips back to my country, where I can wander alone and feel less of an outsider. I just had to learn to respect the people back home, they make a very fair and accurate assumption that if you look like them, why wouldn’t you speak the language? It’s a great assumption because it means they don’t see you as an outsider, a stranger. When they speak to you and you can’t reply, they get angry, but really it’s an anger which we in the west don’t understand, it’s the norm for them, this reaction is the same amongst people in every single country in the world.

        We were once forced to abandon our languages, but not today, our leaders are goons. In Madagascar, the whole education system is in Malagasy, French was banned in the 1980’s and now French is a second language you can learn out of choice not force. We need to stop thinking that the only way to make it is to speak other languages, because when deals are brokered on the continent, do foreigners ever feel the need to learn our languages? Nope! instead Africans who either can’t communicate very well in English, French etc… buy into a deal, they can barely understand the depth of contracts, and it facilitates a lot of one sided transactions. I believe we should make contracts mandatory in our national languages for example.

        We will each judge how African we are by the way the legacy is carried on in our respective households and for posterity. Until then, no one can judge how African you are.

  • ndozvinei

    we should all take a leaf from the indians

  • Florinda Silbato

    As I already told you on Twitter, this is a great article, however I’d like to comment on the Catalonian issue in Spain. Language is being used to create conflicts, probably in a similar way to what happened in Africa in the colonial times, some politics are in the way. But I wouldn’t say Catalonian is an indigenous language. When you use “indigenous” speaking about African languages, you imply that those are native languages of the people that has been colonized, those languages were there before.

    Catalonian is an indigenous language same as Galician, Spanish, Italian, French or Portuguese are. All of these languages come from latin and have evolved about the same way in more or less the same period of time to become the languages they are now.

    Catalonians have never been colonized by Spanish. At some point, smaller kingdoms started to get together and eventually, in the 15th – 16th Century, there were two big kingdoms that joined and created Spain. It all happened the same way it happened in France or Germany or, all around Europe at the time actually. Only during the end of the 19th Century or beginning of the 20th, due to some political and economic crisis and the new political ideas (communism, for instance) that were surging, the idea of independence and nation appeared.

    During the Franco dictatorship all the local languages, such as Catalonian, Galician and Basque were forbidden provoking these independence ideas to grow bigger and become what they are know. Once it was over, they started to be taught in schools and welcomed in all the public spheres but the seed was there. Nowadays, the problem for many people is that in Catalonia, where Catalonian is co-official with Spanish, you are required to be fluent in Catalonian to work as a civil servant, as if Spanish didn’t count, as if it was another country. This situation does not happen in Galicia or in the Basque country. And still, it is not as important as they make it look on TV. The issue with Catalonia is definitively not what it looks like. Many Catalonians are very ok where they are and even some of the Catalonians that consider they are in another country and want full independence, would speak in Spanish when needed and would be ok with that.

    On an unrelated note: Thank you for helping me understand why some of my African friends refuse to tell me what ethnics are they or don’t want me to know what language they speak. I am curious by nature and love languages (I speak four myself). Whenever I say I speak Russian, people want me to say something so that they can hear what it sounds like. When I asked my African friends, I could see they were uncomfortable and changed the subject, I couldn’t figure out why, I just stopped asking. Only Senegalese (specially Wolof and Peul) seemed confident about their culture and language, some of them told me that it was because Senegal was the favorite colony of France. Maybe it’s just because Wolof and Poulard are pretty big ethnics in Africa.

  • Guest

    English is my mother tongue. I was born and raised in Nigeria, I attended all-nigerian primary and secondary schools. I traveled once out of the country before going to the U.S. for university at 18, and that was at age 9. I definitely identified as Nigerian as a kid and was surrounded by Nigerians. But like you, my parents spoke mainly english to me growing up. They did it because they thought it would make my English perfect. I learned the many greetings in my father’s language and my mother’s language, but that was it. I should point out that my parents were from different tribes, and the only language they shared was english.

    As I grew older I tried to learn yoruba (as long as I was in Nigeria), and I still have an interest. One thing that helps my Naija “cred” is that I lived there in my 20s after uni, and when a skeptical person asks me when last I was there, I can start dropping dates, places, political happenings, etc. that at least silence them for the next minute. Yet, I have been sensitive to people who judge me, even as a child. Not just on language, but the way I like my hair (natural), the way I dress, the way I talk, that I act “weird” and like “strange” things. Thankfully, much of that insecurity began dropping away just before I turned 30. It is still there, but I find myself shutting down anyone (african or white – don’t forget the Americans who know about “real Africa” more than you) who starts chastising me. The great thing about being older is not having to take any shit from anyone. I choose to spend my time with people who are accepting of difference. Of course this is just my personal response to what is larger problem with restrictive definitions of nigerianness. But it works for me.

  • Mitch

    I was catching up with a friend very recently and she
    excitedly told me that her niece already had an “accent,” by that she meant, as
    most Filipinos would, an American accent (regardless which one, as if there is
    only one true American accent. DUH). I’d
    been telling her that it’s best for her niece to learn Filipino first because,
    well, she’s a Filipino living in the Philippines. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not
    against learning foreign languages, I mean holy heck, learn as many as you can
    but first things first). Then my friend asked me, “WHAT ABOUT YOU? Why do you
    speak English most of the time?” In my defense I told her it’s partly because I
    got foreign blood (lame, it’s no defense really), but that mainly because I love
    English and in fact that’s why I majored in it. Plus I’m an ESL teacher so I’ve
    gotten used to speaking the language at work and beyond it. Then she said, “And
    if you didn’t have foreign blood?”

    Well that PC lecture sort of backfired. I guess I don’t
    have the moral authority to talk about
    this subject. I do feel disconnected from “Filipino” both as a language and as
    an identity. For one, I don’t look Filipino and the people around me made me
    aware of that– in more ways than is healthy for an impressionable kid– very
    early on. However, I am relearning another Filipino language which is spoken in
    the region where my mom’s family came from. My maternal great-grandfather was
    from Macau but no one in the family bothered to learn Chinese. But what I am
    feeling “guilty” about is that I am virtually
    clueless about my African heritage (perhaps deliberately so), but to the people
    here that is my “label.” Because I speak English with an “accent,” they even think
    maybe my father’s an American GI? He’s not. (He’s not from Nigeria as I first
    thought he was, he’s from Cameroon. But that’s another story.) And I’ve never
    even been to America. I know very little about Nigeria, and next to nothing
    about Cameroon. I am so ashamed writing this. I make an effort to learn Russian
    and Spanish but no effort to know any African language or anything about it for
    that matter. Maybe I’m just as disconnected from “black” as I am from “brown,”
    two concepts not I, and I think nobody else for that matter, can fully
    comprehend or define.

    I guess I didn’t really make a point, did I? Perhaps what
    I want to say is, there’s labels and there’s languages and it’s absolutely confusing.
    At the end of the day it is that timeless and often heartbreaking question,
    “Who am I?”

  • thenowhereman

    Firstly I want to clarify a few things about myself. I am from Zimbabwe and my native language is Shona which I speak fluently. I also live in the Diaspora (UK to be specific) and contrary to what the writer of this article thinks, language is an important arbiter of an authentic African identity. I will now offer my argument against the notion that language is not an adequate litmus test for identity, in this case African.

    There are so many things wrong with this opined article on language and Africanness that I feel there is not enough space or time to fully analyse it. Firstly there is the issue of definitions. The writer does not define language for us or what they mean by Africanness. Therefore language is put across in a rather simplistic way which serves the writer when she gets to make her broad sweeping conclusions later on in the article. I am not sure how this writer has arrived to the conclusion that language is not THE defining aspect of culture. Spectra says the following:

    ‘’Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture. My purpose isn’t to debate who is more African than whom based on language. On the contrary: I don’t understand how anyone can cherry pick a single aspect of our culture as the arbiter of “authentic” African identity: Language.’’

    Spectra, the reason why anyone can exclusively pick language as the single most important aspect of culture, is simply because it is. The laymen who occasionally call you out on your inability to communicate fluently in your native language have probably made an educated guess at to why language is constitutive to your Africanness. All the scholars I have read (Gary Ferraro, Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective, pg20; Keesing and Keesing, New Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology, pg.10; & Franz-Boaz) just to name a few, all agree that without language there can be no culture. And culture is defined as: the customary ways of thinking and behaving of a particular population or society…[and] the culture of a social group includes…its language, religious beliefs, food preferences, music, work habits, gender roles, [child rearing], [technology] and many other learned behaviours and ideas…’[Ember and Ember in their book, Cultural Anthropology p.25]. Now explain to us, how this empirical evidence based on decades of ethnological research is wrong. Furthermore, Gary Ferraro, ‘Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective’, concurs with the above views that it is virtually impossible for the existence of culture without language. Ferraro cites important sectors of culture such as, ‘religion, family relationships, and…technology,’ would not have been possible without some systematic coded process of communication.[pg20] This raises interesting perspectives on the process of ethnology because it seems to suggest a direct link between language and people and how they interact within their environment. Ferraro is adamant that, ‘language is the major vehicle for human thought because our linguistic categories provide the basis for perception and concept formation.’[pg21] Ferraro goes on to suggest that language is such an essential component of human experience that it acts as a conduit to everything we do [pg22].

    And you also mention the following: ‘’For sure, it’s important. But so is indigenous spirituality, traditional garb, family values, the arts.’’ But as cited above, these practices are not culturally possible or exclusive from language. Maybe you have not properly looked into language and the role it plays in shaping meaning and our value systems. Because language in its simplest definition is a broad and complex method of communication which is based on, ‘rules and designs [that enable us to have] knowledge [of] the world and principles for action are coded’ [Ferraro pg13]. What makes man unique according to scholars is his ability to name the things that inhabit his environment and associating them with symbols that are inherited and learnt by future generations. Generally speaking, this is what language is and why you should learn yours.

    I believe that there is an ‘’opportunity cost’’ to everything that we either do or forgo. The failure of your parents or grandparents to fully appreciate (with no fault of their own) the indispensable role of language in the process of enculturation should not be reason to undermine how important language is to our identity.

    Like what I said at the beginning of this comment that there is so much to say on language. I would have liked to go into ‘’the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis advocated by Edward Sapir (1931) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956)’’ (a theory which looked into how language affects our perception and relation to such things as time and space) and some of Chomsky’s ideas about language which I presume the writer is familiar with. But time is simply not on my side.

    In my own opinion, I think that we are in dangerous grounds when we start to dismiss the link between language and identity purely because the connection might not be so obvious to us. But according to research there is a direct correlation between the two. And part of reclaiming our identity should start by reclaiming our langauges.
    Nevertheless, this is still a great article despite its shortcomings!

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  • Constance

    “Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture” Thank you for saying this! I absolutely LOVE linguistics and had, at one point, thought I’d make a career. My grandmother resents her Belgian grandfather for not passing his language along. I don’t remember if she said he spoke Dutch, French, or German, but it gets REALLY fun when you read about the “hypothetical Belgian language”. The Gaelic dialects of another branch of my ancestry are drying up, and for my L2, I identify most with the Spanish language, though there is no known link between myself and Spain. For that matter, I can’t trace my family tree back to England.

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