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  • Writer's pictureDr. Chi

Learning Your Mother Tongue

I love learning new languages. I took French classes all through grammar school and into high school for a total of 7 years. This basis for Romance languages made learning Spanish and Portuguese easier. I studied abroad in Spain as an undergraduate as well as did research there on a Fulbright for a year. Needless to say, I came back speaking Spanish like a Castilian--or Ca-th-tilian as my Mexican friends joke. I was full of “Joder, tio!” “Hijo de la gran puta que te parió” and other high class phrases. Afterwards, I learned Portuguese to conduct research for my dissertation in Brazil.

However, there is one language keeps escaping me. My parents speak Igbo, one of the three major languages of the 200 spoken in Nigeria (not including the bazillions of dialects). When I was growing up, it was still the early 80s when it was not cool to speak anything other than English. Teachers really thought that speaking to your kids in your native tongue would "confuse" them. Unlike many other immigrants, my parents have always spoken fluent English, so that was the main language of the home. Igbo was the language that they spoke to each other to gossip or argue (so we would not understand) but English was dominant.

This rarely became an issue until our kin would bring it up at family gatherings. They would speak to me in Igbo and I would look at them bashfully. ”She doesn’t speak Igbo,” my parents would say.

“Why? Why don’t you speak Igbo?” my uncle would bark accusingly. I would usually skirt away nervously while my parents explained “She’s not interested in learning” or “We tried to teach her” and then quickly evolve into a discussion in Igbo.

My parents were not completely wrong. I was determined to become as American as possible. I did not want to “serve dinner” to my father and other men, in preparation for a future husband. I also hated staying in the house and playing with my siblings who were much younger than I was. I longed to go outside and play with the kids my own age who lived in our building. One or two of them would even stop by to ask if I could join them, but my parents often refused. I had to play the role of the eldest daughter and take care of my younger siblings. My parents often argued that it was because “You are a Nigerian girl, you are not American” that I had to do those things. Being Nigerian seemed to mean not having any fun.

Sadly, it also meant accepting domestic violence as a way of life in my own home as well as in the households of my relatives. Mostly men (but women, too) could treat their partners badly, I was told, because it was a part of our “culture.” Igbo became associated with all of these negative aspects of being Nigerian that I wanted no part of.

Unfortunately, not speaking Igbo also meant missing the good parts of being a Nigerian in America. I will never forget how at a wedding, my father gave a toast to the bride and groom in Ibo. One of my aunts told me “Your father has a rich texture to his Igbo. It’s too bad you can’t hear it.” When we would visit family or they would swing by our place, my parents would laugh with my aunts and uncles. I remember asking for a translation and my mother saying, “You should learn Igbo!” She then continued in the barrage of laughter.

Learn Igbo? How the hell was I supposed to do that?

There were a few good-hearted attempts. Once, my father wrote down the parts of the body in Igbo for me and one of my brothers. Today, all I can remember is anyi for eye. They also taught me the most important terms like “Come and eat” and water (miri). However, these attempts fell on the wayside as speaking to my parents and siblings in English was faster and easier. I also suspect that my parents liked having a secret language of their own to use in the house. Gossiping about people we knew was much easier when the kids could not understand.

While I love the facility of accumulating more Romance languages in my databank, it is time to “go back to my roots.” I know there are many apps and websites out there that help, so I am trying to figure out the best ones. I did not want to be half-assed about it by doing some online course or picking up a few bits here and there but now I am realizing that it is better than nothing. Still, in the end, I want to become fluent. Perhaps I can find a new research project on Nigerians that would give me funding to do just that.

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