If proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten (Achebe), then words are the sustenance which gives life, so why are we (Ndigbo) killing ourselves by killing our (words), our language?
Travels to Nigeria and to Igboland suggest that we are raising a generation of Igbos who – in addition to not speaking Igbo- are not fully articulate in any other language as to be said to be truly unilingual.
One year, in Enugu, I met a 5 year old, born to Igbo parents, of whom I was proudly told, “she speaks only English” when she could not respond to my “Kedụ?” An Igbo child growing up in the heartland of ala Igbo could not respond to the very basic, “Kedụ?” Let that sink in for a minute because it illustrates just how deep the problem is. I switched to English.
“How are you?”
“I yam fine.” “
“How old are you?”
“How old yam I is one years old, how old yam I is two years old…” And on she went in a sing-song voice until she got to 5. I tried to have a conversation with her in the only language she understood and could ‘speak’, but her spoken English was only marginally better than her non existent Igbo. She could not name simple animals, got her grammar and tenses wrong. It was a depressing experience.
That same week , I went to church in Enugu and was alarmed (and disappointed) to hear almost every child present- in this working to middle class area of town- speaking (with varying proficiencies) in English. Like the 5 year old I had met earlier, some of them were not fluent in the only language they “spoke.” Some spoke a mixture of pidgin and standard English, some spoke a mélange of pidgin, standard English and Igbo. For instance, I overheard one ask another, “What time dis church is going to ….” He stopped and sifted through his mind for the right word but not finding it, gave up and said, “What time dis church is going to gbasa?” ‘Gbasa’ being Igbo for ‘dismiss.’ I found it both funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
The next year when I was in Port Harcourt for a book festival, I bought a few books written in Igbo from an already limited choice. One of them was a novel whose title I forget now. Instead of celebrating Igbo language and culture (as one would expect from a book written in Igbo by an Igbo writer), the author denigrated both. The protagonist’s spectacular rise in status was summed up at the end by “ọ na-asụzi bekee ka ndi ocha. Nwa ha anaghi kwanụ asụ Igbo. Sọsọ bekee ka ọ na-atapiri“: (She spoke English like the English. Their child spoke no Igbo. She spoke only English).The protagonist’s wicked uncle’s family, on the other hand, (naturally) fell on hard times and their daughter who spoke only Igbo could only stare wide eyed, envious, uncomprehending as her cousin spoke English all day long (Ha!Ha!Ha!). The End.
A friend told me the story of being at a shoe shop in Nnewi (I believe) when a man came in with his young son. This man consistently spoke in English to his son, telling him to “tight your leg in the shoe.” My friend, intrigued (and I suspect irritated), asked the man “Ọ na ọha anụ Igbo?” The man proudly answered in the negative. His son did not understand Igbo. My friend asked if they lived in Nnewi (Yes). If both parents were Igbo (Yes). The man did not find anything wrog with how he had chosen to raise his son. As far as he was concerned, it was a sign of upward mobility.
English is no longer the preserve of the upper class whose children have access to holidays abroad and “good schools” where students were punished for speaking in the “vernacular” but is available too to the children of the working class. I understand the impulse for parents , especially parents on the lower social strata, to want a better life for their children, and in a country like Nigeria to see being proficient in English as a means to getting that better life. What I do not understand is why it must come at the cost of our own language.
Sometimes , when I ask why our children growing up in Igboland (especially) do not speak Igbo, parents say, “What will they do with Igbo in the future?” They fail to understand that ‘what they will do with it” is not as easily quantifiable as one might seem to think. Pride in one’s culture of which language is one, is not as easily quantifiable as economic gains for instance.
Of course, this denigration of our language (and culture) did not start today. O tee go. When the Europeans came as traders, missionaries and colonial administrators and took over Igboland by force, English language was introduced and imposed through the Education Codes and Ordinances. The new elite – the kotuma , the interpreters, and the colonial administrators carried out all their business in English. Igbo became a second class language, irrelevant for anyone wishing to get/stay ahead. We are still living with the consequences today.
According to UNESCO, of the nearly 7000 languages in the world, one dies every two weeks. That is a sobering thought. More sobering when you realize that although Igbo isn’t dead yet, it is classified as an endangered language. One of the 3 major languages of Nigeria, with over 25 million native speakers, is an endangered language. Let that sink in…And then let us get to work to turn the tide. Taa bụ gboo.