To have another language is to possess a second soul.~Charlemagne
Some may not like what I’m about to write but I’m going to write it nevertheless because it is somewhat underrated and underappreciated. But above all, it is factual and objective.
I know we are concerned about culture and heritage. How to preserve our traditions, languages, and all that. For Igbos like me, this concern possibly grew more worrisome when UNESCO predicted that our language will become extinct by 2025 if nothing is done to check its fast-declining use.
So when a friend recently queried why my kids spoke little Igbo, our discussion raced back to that doomsday prediction. I started researching ways to teach my teenagers Igbo and realized that contrary to my fears our dear language has actually flourished in recent times. I discovered that in our usually enterprising manner, many Igbos rose to the challenge and elevated the language to disciplinary status in global institutes of repute like Oxford and Harvard. However, what gave me the greatest joy was that as 2025 approaches, numerous websites like igbotic.net where anyone can learn Igbo have emerged. My exuberant exclamation was that “Igbo language liveth!”
Buoyed by this knowledge I rang my friend and reignited the topic hoping to convince him that UNESCO’s augury will come to naught after all. He still insisted that I should ‘force’ my kids to learn our mother tongue. That was when I asked a simple question that left him bewildered. “When and how often will this Igbo language skill help my children?”
After a brief back and forth which was leading to more confusion, I had to explain my position.
Most Igbo kids living outside the South East started out speaking Hausa, Yoruba, etc along with their peers. This makes it easier to live in those areas. I know a lady who fantasized about her kids speaking “asupri supri” because she longed to migrate to the western world. For years she pursued her dream of moving to Canada. Last year when she finally landed there I called and asked if her kids have started speaking “asupri supri”, her euphoric response was all you needed to feel her satisfaction.
I also have a friend in the UK whose daughter spoke better Igbo than some children in Amawbia when she was just 3 years old. At 6 she could read and write in Igbo language. This was only possible because her mum considered it a duty and passionately taught her. There are many like her in the diaspora and together with concerted efforts by other stakeholders, will ensure that our language endures.
You see, being a diasporan has many peculiarities and one is that your kids are often raised in an environment (school) where they are not only taught in a different language — English in most cases — but also have mates communicating in that language. In addition, whereas I studied Igbo as a 2nd language in primary school, Irish was the mandatory 2nd language here at that level.
Now as a father, it was one of my intentions to teach my kids Igbo when I relocated and I did try. Perhaps I didn’t try enough but of course, you cannot force them as that may have unintended consequences in these climes. The truth is that the chances of my kids going back to live in Nigeria and particularly the South East is almost zero. This is even more so given the current trajectory of insecurity and economic hardship in the country. And as I embraced this reality it soon became clear that French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, and indeed programming languages like HTML, Python, and Java offer better opportunities for kids in our global and tech-driven world.
Now consider this. For some time now I’ve been applying for research and academic positions across diverse EU institutions that will hopefully launch me into a doctorate study. For one, they are usually funded programmes. And in addition, they offer the opportunity to learn in a multicultural environment.
Unfortunately, my chances have been reduced by one factor; lack of second language proficiency. It is often an eligibility requirement for most EU Institutions that you possess certain levels of certification in at least 2 official languages. That was how my French-speaking friend who lives in New York got a job at the Hague some years ago. So here I am stuck with only English and Igbo languages when a member of the cmonionline community of writers in Nigeria is a French teacher. This writer may actually be more qualified than I am for many positions in the EU. And guess what? There are more like her.
Of course, with the internet era, the opportunities available to those who know computing languages like Java, and Python are limitless. But when we say that young Nigerians are ill-equipped to seek jobs abroad, it isn’t limited to tech skills because language skills equally give you a competitive edge. If you possess B-level competency in French, Spanish, Dutch, or any European language for that matter you can apply for many jobs over here that are open to non-EU citizens.
Furthermore, some Universities in EU countries have free/affordable tuition but many Nigerian students don’t know this. Norwegian, Swedish & Dutch are among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. You can learn any of these languages online and with a recent ruling by the EU Court of Justice that the European Commission cannot restrict the choice of a second language to English, German, or French in its recruitment process, your chances of landing a job are even greater if you are proficient in any other European language.
I have not in any way suggested that you cannot or shouldn’t go the extra length to teach kids your indigenous language. It is a thing of pride to watch kids speak their native language. So if you can speak, read or/and write in Igbo that’s fine. If you can teach your wards thats even better. In addition, if you can learn or get your wards to learn French, Spanish, or Java then that will be great because as I always say we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Language skills are communication skills that help you convey your ideas with clarity and precision. Not only do you learn to speak well but also listen attentively. So think about it, you can start learning another language today.