By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I have expressed concerns many times here about how wrongheaded Anglophilia (i.e., excessive admiration for English) is causing a decline in the acquisition of Nigerian languages by Nigerian children. (See, for instance, my two-part series titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak” published on September 2, 2012 and on September 9, 2012. Also see my July 7, 2013 article titled “Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigerian Can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis”).
Millions of Nigerian children, especially in urban areas of southern and central Nigeria, are growing up with an avoidable linguistic handicap. They are monolingual in a nativized non-native English variety. Nigerian English, with all is strengths and limitations, is the first and only language of a large proportion of our children. As people who follow my column, especially the last few columns, know only too well, a monolingual proficiency in Nigerian English isn’t the choicest asset any parent can bequeath to a child. But this is not the subject of this column.
In this week’s column I want to explore how Nigerian parents’ ignorance of time-honored linguistic theories about language acquisition may be contributing to the continuing loss of Nigerian languages. Many parents incorrectly think that allowing their children to learn and speak their native languages will detract from their children’s ability to speak fluent English.
A recent interview that Femi Oke, the British-Nigerian former CNN news anchor and current host of Al Jazeera’s “The Stream,” granted a Nigerian news source on why she doesn’t speak Yoruba rekindled my interest in this issue. Oke said her parents discouraged her from speaking Yoruba when she was little because they thought Yoruba would interfere with her English and cause her to be discriminated against in London.
Her insightful recollection is worth sharing in some detail. She said: “When I was younger and was speaking Yoruba, my family would laugh at me, which made me want to stop. Also, my family decided they were not going to teach me properly because they didn’t want me to have an accent. That was in the 60s and early 70s, when there was more racism in the United Kingdom and they didn’t want people to pick on me or to pick me out as having a Nigerian accent. Really, the truth is that when children are bilingual, they may not have an accent. They would speak Yoruba or they would speak English without in fact having Yoruba accent. But parents didn’t know that. We are now at a time when it is fashionable to have more than one language. I have on my desk at home two Yoruba courses.
“I have enough to read on my workbook for the book club, let alone taking my Yoruba course. So, it’s really upsetting for me that my parents didn’t teach me at a time when it would have been fun.”
Incidentally, I had cause to discuss this same issue with Femi Oke here in Atlanta when I briefly met her at the CNN Center. This was in December 2007 when my late wife, Zainab, visited me from Nigeria. Zainab was Okun Yoruba, born and raised in Ilorin, and studied English at the University of Ibadan. When we went to CNN, Zainab said she wanted to meet Femi Oke—and other top CNN International anchors like Jim Clancy, Ralitsa Vasileva, and Jonathan Mann—which she did, courtesy of my good friend who was a top editor at CNN at the time.
My late wife spoke Yoruba to Oke, although she guessed that she might not be proficient in the language. Sure enough, Oke politely said she couldn’t speak a word of Yoruba. “Why can’t you speak Yoruba even though both of her parents are Yoruba?” Zainab asked. She said her parents thought Yoruba would contaminate her pristine British accent and make her stand out among her peers in the UK.
Of course, this isn’t true. As Oke herself said in the interview I quoted above, children have an innate capacity to learn multiple languages without one language interfering with the other. This fact is supported by decades of research in linguistics. Famous American linguist Noam Chomsky was perhaps the first linguist to discover that all languages share a commonality at a “deep level.” He calls this principle “Universal Grammar,” and uses it explain why children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds effortlessly acquire any and all languages they are exposed to.
I can attest to this from personal experience. My last two children, who are now 6 and 4, learned to speak my native Baatonu language after only six months of living with my mother. After my wife’s unexpected death in 2010, they lived with their aunt in Kaduna for about two years and spoke only Nigerian English. In 2012 I decided to take them to Baruten in Kwara State to live with my mother, who doesn’t speak English. I initially had some anxieties about how my mother would communicate with them, especially in the first few weeks of their stay with her.
“Well, one of two things would happen: they’ll either teach me English or I’ll teach them Baatonu,” my mother said in Baatonu, half-joking and half-serious. She was right. After just six months of living with my mother, my children started speaking Baatonu with perfect mother-tongue proficiency! (My mother also learned some broken English in the process). When my mother first told me this I thought she was making it up. I thought six months was too soon for anybody to acquire native proficiency in a language. I was wrong.
The next time I called my children after my conversation with my mother, I decided to speak to them in Baatonu. I was blown away: their facility with and mastery of a language they couldn’t speak a word of six months earlier just overwhelmed me. What was even more remarkable was that their mastery of the new language didn’t cause any form of subtractive bilingualism. That is, their proficiency in Baatonu didn’t subtract from their proficiency in Nigerian English because they attended a private primary school where English was the dominant language. After one and a half years of living with my mother, my children acquired a solid, admirable grasp of the idioms, turns of phrase, proverbs, cadences, and deep grammatical structures of my native language.
They have been living with me here in America for nearly a year now and still speak Baatonu with native proficiency. Because language is a living thing that endures only when it is nourished, I work hard to sustain their proficiency in the language in three ways: I never speak English to them at all, they don’t speak English to each other at home and in school, and they speak with their grandparents and cousins in Nigeria at least every weekend either by phone or by Skype.
I also make a conscious effort every day to teach them even more about the language. And it’s paying off. Each time my mother speaks with them, she commends the richness of their vocabularies and the sophistication of their expressive repertoire. She, in fact, says their Baatonu grammar and vocabulary are ahead of their peers in Nigeria. In the midst of all this, their English has become completely Americanized. When Adam, my 4-year-old son, speaks English nobody believes he has been in America for only 11 months. You can detect a little Nigerian accent in my 6-year-old Maryam’s English if you listen intently.
What is even more fascinating is that my 10-year-old daughter who has never lived in my hometown longer than a week—and who speaks English with a perfect American accent, having lived here for over 4 years— now speaks Baatonu, although with less proficiency than her siblings! Their mother, who was a big advocate for Nigerian languages, would be proud if she were alive.
I am sharing my personal story to serve as a lesson for Nigerian parents who think exposing their children to their native languages would interfere with their children’s proficiency in English. Bilingualism isn’t a handicap; it’s a strength. Research has shown time and again that bilingual children are smarter than monolingual children.
Except in Hausa-speaking northern Nigeria, it’s now becoming increasingly rare to see children from middle-class homes speaking native Nigerian languages. It’s so rare that I became something of a spectacle in Abuja late last year each time people found me speaking Baatonu to my children. You know you have reached a crisis point when the sight of middle-class children speaking a language other than English to their parent is now cause for curious stares and questions.