By Kemi Osukoya
March 2015

For immigrants, however, experts say language can become a linguistic survival slope during assimilation process into a new culture and society, which often can leads to one’s linguistic mortality.


Recently, I have been thinking about my provenance. As an American with direct lineage in Africa, one of the things I struggle with is how to remain authentic to my African values as well as my American values. As much as I have tried to maintain authenticity on both sides (hold onto both values) in the past few years, I have to admit that I sometimes feel inauthentic and disenfranchised, which lately left me thinking and asking: At what point does one get to define or choose which side to identify with? Do I combine or let go?

I was first struck by this thought last year after both of my grandparents passed away within months of each other. They were my direct connection to the continent. The rest of my relatives are scattered around America and Europe, either residing in the United States or in Europe. I spent my early childhood in Lagos, Nigeria with my paternal grandparents, but have lived in the United States for over 20 years.

New York City,  known as the world’s multinational melting pot, has been my home. It’s where I had my post secondary education, got married, gave birth to a child, left an unhealthy marriage and years later began a healthy and happy relationship with a wonderful man. Yet, I feel disloyal and guilty whenever someone speaks to me in my native language – Yoruba, which was my grandparents’ native language and I can’t respond fluently in the same language because I seldom speak or use the language daily.

English is, and has always been the primary language spoken at my home and at work, and every other aspects of my daily life.

I know, of all the things happening now in the world, especially on the continent, talking about low impact identity crisis relating to linguistic retention seems rather self indulging and rates low on the priority list of things that would move the continent forward. On the contrary, it is not.

According to several studies, most immigrants and first generation Americans often deal and struggle with this issue of how one can stay true to one’s origin and/ or who one is becoming without losing one’s root. And one of the ways in which immigrants maintain that connection to their root is through language.

Language, other than race and religion, is one of the primary ways in which people identify or differentiate themselves from other people. For immigrants, however, experts say language can become a linguistic survival slope during assimilation process into a new culture and society, which often can leads to one’s linguistic mortality.

Unfortunately for me and many other first and second generation Americans [in this context, people with direct origin in Africa,] the path to native linguistic mortality too often begin at a young age at our ancestral root.

Though done with the best intentions by our educated grandparents and parents, the clustering effects of upward socioeconomic mobility nevertheless have endangered the survival of our native languages.

Nigeria, like most other African countries, has several ethnicities and languages, but the country’s official [common] spoken language is English- emphasized in every aspects of the society, right from early education to government policies, and practices, at the expense of Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, the local native languages.

It’s one of the residuals of colonialism, like other colonial languages including French and Portuguese spoken by other African countries.

By the time I was in elementary school, English was the main language spoken to me at home, except for when I got into trouble, that’s usually when the native language was spoken – like a rapid firing words squad as a form of warning – to remind me of my origin and family’s expectations.

By mid elementary school, I unconsciously began to consider those who can only speak and write their native language as uneducated, which echoed in my preference to learn French – seen then as second best to English, instead of Yoruba or any other native African language- when I had a chance to learn a second language.

Later, as an adult, and due to the nature of my job, the composition of my immediate family and friends, I seldom speak my native language. Though I can understand it, my ability to speak or write the language fluently has diminished exponentially over the years.

I, like my grandparents and parents, have now succumbed to the occasional serendipitous linguistic spiritual manifestation of what many first immigrants and their immediate generation know as the volcanic explosion of speaking in native tongues- the native language outburst that often occurs whenever a bilingual or somewhat bilingual parent gets mad at a child and immediately unconsciously reverse to reprimanding the child in a native language.

I’m not proud of it, but at least it still keeps me closer to the mother land.

Several studies, though most of these studies focused largely on Hispanic, European and Asian immigrants, and less on African immigrants, nevertheless, have shown that language retention among immigrants becomes more endangered to extinguish and a cultural challenge after the first or the second generation.

The arrival of an immigrant language begins with the first generation. The language survival depend on how subsequent generation continue to retain the ability to speak or use.

Most Africans seldom realize or notice that they are forfeiting or have forfeited their native language as they ascend socioeconomically, and get assimilated into the Western world. The shift, which sometimes happens unnoticeably, is further encouraged by lack of strong social structural support for African native languages in Africa and around the world.

African languages, unlike other common non English languages like Italian, Spanish, French, Mandarin, spoken in most developed world, are not considered linguistically attractive in the Western world, which is due to several factors. But the top two reasons have to do with the way the continent is perceived in the Western world and how Africans themselves view their native languages.

While many of us [Africans} have a strong sense of our ancestral root and identify with our family’s country of origin, like the shedding of a snake’s skin, the first thing we let go in the process of assimilation/ transformation is the native language.

Given the current immigration trend and the burgeoning relationship between African countries and the developed world, this trend is expected to continue unless strong social structural supports are put in place on the continent to maintain and ensure that from early education policies and practices, Africans see this part of their cultural heritage- knowledge of the African languages as an asset, and a valuable resource in the global world rather than an impediment that needs to be shed.

I have always been proud of my African heritage but had also struggled in the past with coming to terms with the historic negative portrayals of Africans and the continent in the media, which I think in some ways altered my sectorial sense of the continent.

Thanks to my fellow Africans – David Oyelowo, Teju Cole, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, just to name a few, that narrative is changing.

I’m not blaming anyone for losing my native tongue – I think we [Africans] can best begin our African language recovery process by accepting that we often sacrifice the most valuable thing we have in our quest for succorance from the West. Africans [countries and people] should start measuring and taking pride in their own and fellow Africans’ achievements and success stories.

Before you start thinking that I have completely lost my heritage because I don’t speak fluently my native language, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have deeply profound love and admiration for the continent and its people. I still enjoy cooking, and eating African cuisines, even if it’s just occasionally. I love African music, and musicians like King Sunny Ade are on my iTunes top ten playlist. I consider African music my personal Rosetta- go ahead, give it a try and you will understand why- even experts have said that music aids in learning and retaining a language. And my thesaurus list of African swearing words haven’t disappeared and usually comes in handy once in a while.

And oh, one more thing, I think of myself as Nigerian-American, and takes prides in affairs of both continents. And I am on the road to linguistic recovery. So if you meet me and speak to me in a native African language – Yoruba, just give me a few seconds for my mind to ring up my brain so I could maybe try to respond in the same language.

Copyright © 2015 ImeK Media, LLC. All rights reserved.n