When I look at our kids, I know there is hope for Nigeria.
We are raising a crop of detribalised Nigerians today. Many of the kids out there learned to speak the English language first before their parents’ mother tongue, unlike us adults who’s first languages were native tongues before we learned to speak the English language later at school.
Today’s kids are different; many of them speak the English language with almost no trace of mother tongue influence. Influence not just in speech but in character as well.
Many of our kids are spared inflections that dogged our speech particularly with certain pronunciations that immediately sectionalised us as coming from certain parts of the country, the Yoruba man’s hegg, the Hausa man’s fiful and the Igbo man’s Rolly driving on the load. Apart from these obvious interferences that many of us have learned to delete from our speeches, we still remain ‘coloured’ from our backgrounds, our cultures and our environments through our mother tongue.
By ‘coloured’, I mean for instance, growing up, we heard folk tales that were mostly about the cunning tortoise and the dog or some other animal, we didn’t know dinosaurs for instance or Koala bears or a hundred other animals and stories from Disney, stories that our kids know like the back of their hands, so we were typified within the confines of what we knew.
However, kids whose first language is English are more embracing of other people, cultures and foreign ideas.
They have a large resource base of concepts, beliefs, they tend to make more friends with other kids without selecting along tribal lines and are essentially more confident as they mostly have no frame of (bias) reference. This theory is backed by a linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf who studied Hopi, the language of Native Americans and claimed that speakers of one language see the world differently from speakers of another language.
Now, does that mean the English language is superior to ours? By no means but it’s a language that is constantly evolving and therefore relevant in today’s world. That relevance is why many parents are insisting their kids learn to speak the language as a first language before the native tongue.
There’s a woman who grinds pepper for me in my neighbourhood, you can’t exactly call her literate because she couldn’t have gone past primary school, I’m guessing here though.
I was shocked when I observed and later confirmed that her brood of four only speak a smattering of Yoruba but communicate well in basic English, their mum of course speaks terrible English. You should hear her when she’s upset with them, its Yoruba in English, just like me when I’m mad as hell at my kids.
When asked why her kids speak English and not Yoruba, she replied, “The language of the world is English, I want them to do better than me.”
Now, ‘do better’ is relative, perhaps she is inadvertently telling us what Linguists have been saying, that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently, and thinking differently means applying new sets of ideas to solutions which will hopefully create a ‘better life’ for its speakers.
These kids and many like them, regardless of what social class they belong to are emerging as the new face of Nigeria, they make up the bulk in many private schools today, children of the rich and middle class who even in their teenage years haven’t mastered their parents’ mother tongue. They know more Disney stories than the ubiquitous tortoise tales that made up our folk stories growing up, they have more info on their hands than our proverbs and customs.
This piece isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of raising Nigerian kids who’s first language is the English language, that is a topic for another day. Rather, it’s more of detribalised kids who think no ill of other ethnic groups because they have no basis for such ethnocentric views.
Years back, my daughter had what I chose to call an identity crisis. She insisted she was an Igbo girl and would always demand to be dressed as an Igbo during cultural days in school. At first I was amused at her confusion, where did this come from? Did she have more Igbo friends than Yoruba friends? I don’t think so because in her world, Igbo and Yoruba do not exist as categories for selecting friends. So, who’s teaching her to accept one tribe over the other, no one I could find culpable.
Igbo just appealed to her; just like a chinese meal appeals to one who’s given the liberty of choice.
I humoured her and dressed her in Igbo attires with the hope that she would grow out of her need to be Igbo. She didn’t.
She woke up one day and asked why I wasn’t speaking Igbo to her. I told her I was Yoruba through and through and so was she and advised she had better get used to being a Yoruba girl. She responded by enrolling as the only Yoruba girl in an Igbo class. Well, she soon learned she was on her own when even her ‘Igbo’ friends couldn’t speak the language and so there was no one around to teach her.
Like many in her generation, my daughter’s first language is English. It wasn’t a deliberate effort on my part to speak only English to her but English is the language of those story books we pick off the shelves, it’s the language of the cartoons we make them watch, it’s the language spoken in their first years in school. Is that excuse enough? No.
The upside to all of this is that we are raising detribalised Nigerians. Imagine what a detribalised President, Governor, MD of a conglomerate or even small business would do? They would hire the best hands regardless of what part of the country the person comes from, they would ditch the quota system and focus on areas of need rather than regional formulas, they would send errant politicians to jail regardless of the fact that they come from the same local government areas…
Just a thought for our dear nation, a hopeful thought.
And there is also the down side…talk for another day.