What a rare find!
It is not often that one finds an African child in the company of a parent speaking a language other than English. This day, I was on my way to Brooklyn, NY to visit my daughter. The bus I was on, the Greyhound, had pulled into the station in Cleveland about ten minutes ago. All passengers including those continuing on to New York had to get off the bus to later re-board. As I was making my way inside the station, I came upon a family of three—a mother and her two sons whom I‘m later to learn are fourteen and five—standing close to the entrance and conversing. I couldn’t squeeze my way in without asking them to make way for me. I was about to ask when something else caught my attention. I suddenly realized that I could not understand what they were saying. Intrigued, I asked, “What language are you speaking?” rudely cutting into their conversation.
“Fulani.” the fourteen year old said, responding to my query.
“Fulani, Nigeria?” I asked.
“No, Fulani, Guinea,” the mother responded.
“Interesting,” I said.
“Are you from Guinea?”
“No, Nigeria,” I told her.
Very much impressed, I asked how she had done it. Not only were the children speaking Fulani, their grasp of the English language was also impressive. Before she could respond, the fourteen year old explained how they are only allowed to speak their mother tongue at home. Mother confirmed this. “Oh, yes,” she proudly interjected, “they can speak all the English at school, but when they come home, it must be Fulani. There are just certain things that we cannot express in English, or in public, you know.”
“Wise woman,” I acquiesced. “Your children will thank you.” She beamed.
“We speak French, too” the five year old chimed in. “We speak both at home.” Both mother and big brother nodded.
My interest followed this threesome till we got to New York and we exchanged phone numbers. I was pleased to see a West African mother in the Diaspora instruct her children in public and no one could tell what she was saying to them. Unless there was someone else on the bus that day who spoke Fulani, their business was no one’s business but theirs!
The majority of children of African descent in the Diaspora do not speak in their mother tongue. Do you see any problem with this? Should the inability of our children in the diaspora as well as the city children back home to speak their own ethnic language be of concern? Should we be alarmed at the gradual erosion of ethnic cultures? Could we simply say “What’s in a language?” and do nothing?
Can you truly learn about your culture and not learn to speak the language?
Language is culture. Language cannot be divorced from culture. Not to speak one’s mother tongue is not to have full understanding of the traditions and customs of the ethnic group to which one belongs. Teaching a child to speak the mother tongue is to bequeath to them a priceless legacy – the cultural heritage.