I am a Nigerian, living in England and when I mention Nigeria, most people would quickly ask whether I am Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. Those are the three main tribes and languages of the country. For this reason, it doesn’t surprise me when I get a baffled look in response to me saying “I’m from Kogi State and we speak Ebira”. A lot of people (including Nigerians) may not have heard of such tribe/language and often find a way to try and classify me as a “Yoruba” lady.
I somewhat know what it’s like to be a minority and to belong to a small group of people. However, being a minority has not equated to me limiting my world. My parents were always particular about us (myself and my siblings) learning the language. I grew up in the Northern part of Nigeria so actually I learnt and spoke Hausa a lot more fluently than I did my own language. I did learn Ebira as well but there’s certainly room for improvement. I then went to high school in Ibadan in south-western Nigeria where I picked up some Yoruba in addition to what I had picked up from home. My mum speaks Hausa, Yoruba and Ebira fluently with little bits of Igbo and French. I guess the saying ‘like mother, like daughter’ applies here because I have a similar language-loving streak.
I studied French and German at school but somehow took the French a lot further than the German. Part way through high school, I moved to England. For some strange reason, I kept receiving comments like “you speak good English” or “you don’t have an accent”.
While I’m here, let me dispel every myth or pre-conceived idea about what Nigerians speak – despite Nigeria having a mixture of several (we have a lot more languages than the 3 main ones) languages, our national/official language is English so most of us will speak English.
Back to the point, being in England opened up my world and I made friends from the European Union and all over the world. Throughout university even to my working life, I have come across individuals who speak anything from French to Chinese with little or no English. There’s a frustration that spreads across their face as they try to ask a question or explain something to you with no success. There’s a chasm I feel, widening as I fail to connect with someone trying desperately to reach out to me in what may be their ‘hour of need’. It can feel like two people standing on the opposite sides of a closed door with no access/throughway. It is occasions like this that have made me realise that while speaking English is great, it’s not special. There is nothing extra about it, it is necessary but ordinary, nice but not always helpful.
I visited Albufeira, Portugal recently. It’s a lovely city, beautiful beaches with fantastic people! Before I set out on my journey, I thought it’d be useful to learn some basic Portugese phrases to be able to converse with the locals. While in the lobby of my hotel one evening, I ordered a hot drink from the bar. One of the staff brought the drink to me and I was very grateful so I expressed this with “muito obrigado” (thank you to a male in Portugese). His response was “de nada” (you’re welcome). The expression on his face was one filled with surprise that I knew some words in his language. Where I sat was close to bar so as things quietened down around the bar, he started a conversation with me. I got to know that he spoke other languages including French and Spanish. He told me a bunch of stories about his journey from his country of origin to Portugal. We proceeded to have a mini French-Portugese dialogue.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela
I think this quote by Mandela couldn’t be more accurate. People take note when you go out of your way to ensure you can communicate with them; it shows you care and it also shows you respect them and their culture. One should be able to share their thoughts and feelings in a way that gives the other person an opportunity to understand you and does not allow the language difference to be a barrier. For me, that little action sparked a conversation and friendship with the waiter. I got to learn a lot more from him about the country, the language, the culture and food and he saw to it that my stay was pleasant – I was always warmly received and help was readily available if I needed it. He was happy to have been able to connect with someone from a different country; that made a difference to him.
The world is becoming more and more of a global village, thanks to technology and various means of easy international travel. You’re never far away from another cultural encounter. Despite living in such a diverse world, one can fail to experience the variety as Ludwig Wittegenstein remarks “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. It is estimated that there are up to 7,000 languages spoken in the world today [1,2]. I find it interesting that around 46 of those languages have just a single speaker .
A massive well done to those guys keeping the language alive!
In such a melting pot of languages, the options are endless, one just has to take a pick.
Why learn a language?
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way” – Frank Smith.
Around 75% of the world’s population don’t speak English . I’ve often heard people say “such and such a country would be great for my career/degree but I’m afraid to move – I wouldn’t be able to cope with a foreign language and new culture”. It is well known that having another language as part of your skillset is a great boost to your CV and an attraction to employers worldwide. On a personal level, it gives you a key to every door you are faced with. Like the quote above by Frank Smith, just adding a second language to your capabilities takes away those barriers and allows you to move freely from one place to the next. There’s something beautiful about being able to experience another person’s world and interact with them in their world.
With the likes of YouTube, Google and mobile apps, learning a language couldn’t be easier. I mean if you wanted to, you can always do it old school and use books or audio tapes etc. Some people have learnt from watching TV programmes in another language. From personal experience, DuoLingo is a brilliant app for learning languages. It’s interactive and fun – you get to learn how to speak with faultless diction.
In this day and age, many people are transitioning through life while settling into a new country. There are lots of reasons one may decide to move and like it was for me, their world may be opened up to such a degree that they perceive and acknowledge their global citizenship. My trip to Portugal was an eye-opener in this regard. I came across people from different backgrounds and ironically, there were more that spoke French or German than Portugese. It was nice to be able to throw in the “Salut” or “Auf Wiedersehen” here and there.
Virginia Woolf likens language to “wine upon the lips”. There is a certain sweetness that comes with being able to speak something outside of your mother tongue. It broadens your cultural outlook and empathy enabling you to share another’s hope, grasp their story and connect with another human being. It makes you unique and that difference acquired can be used to make a difference wherever your global identity locates you.
1. BBC UK – Languages
2. Linguistic Society of America