Pick up a language, it’s good for the brain: Multilingualism in Africa

I only speak one language. English. I know! It’s nothing to brag about. Part of that comes from being raised in American suburbia. The typical American only speaks one language, so I’ve got that ticked off. The other part comes from my mother’s notion that teaching me and my siblings Igbo (my native tongue) would have somehow inhibited us from mastering English. Mastery of English is a status symbol for many Africans, especially among Igbo people.

My mother now admits that was a big mistake because when I got older I told her that it was and she realizes how badly I want to speak Igbo. (I love you, mom!) But she did it to protect us. I imagine she thought that if we learned Igbo, then we may speak English with an Igbo accent and perhaps she thought that if we spoke English that way, then Americans would ridicule us. It wouldn’t be a far-fetched assumption because that’s what she and my father went through. I saw Americans look down on my highly-educated parents (dad has a Ph.D., mom’s a hospital nurse) because they speak English with a non-American accent. Americans would ask my parents to repeat themselves several times, pretend that they couldn’t hear them or cruelly say, “speak English!” One day when I was 17 years old, I went with my parents to a home construction firm’s office and we were picking out custom designs for our new house with this blond woman. At a certain point during our appointment with her — she must have been a customer service or sales agent — I could see that she had gotten so annoyed with my parents’ accent that she decided to talk to me instead. Oh, that irked me. I can never forget how my mother sat in the chair not talking anymore because the woman had been so unpleasant towards her and my father.

I believe my mother didn’t want that for me and my siblings. She didn’t want us to have those types of experiences. I believe she wanted us to speak English with a flawless American accent and since I was brought up in the United States from two years old, I do have the standard American accent and no second tongue.

If I could re-do college all over again, I would take up a foreign language, one that’s spoken widely in Africa.

Many Africans are multilingual. If you go to South Africa, you’ll likely come across young folks who speak four, five, six languages. Multilingualism is part of the experience of growing up in Africa where the interconnected histories of ethnic groups, dynamic geographic landscapes and European colonialism left an enduring legacy. There are more than 1,500 distinct languages spoken in Africa (compare that to about 300 in Europe).

I’m learning Igbo. It’s been a work in progress, but it is a work in love and deep interest in my origins. Also, I’ve been learning French and I’m coming along. French is the official language in 21 African countries and I moved to Senegal in 2017 to get more accustomed to it.

Learning a new language is good exercise for our brains and, of course, when you can speak to someone in the language that they’re most comfortable with, you’ll probably communicate better with them. Eventually, I’d like to be fluent in Igbo, Swahili, Hausa, French and Portuguese. My goal is ambitious but I’m putting it out there so that the universe – and you all – can hold me accountable. Daalu!

By the way, check out this piece from the Christian Science Monitor: Why does Africa have so many languages?

How many languages do you speak? Do you have plans to learn another one?

One thought on “Pick up a language, it’s good for the brain: Multilingualism in Africa

  1. I speak Igbo, English and a little bit of French. I tried learning a bit of Hausa from a friend during my national service, I recall how excited he was at my first few attempts. So yes! I totally agree with you that “when you can speak to someone in the language that they’re most comfortable with, you’ll probably communicate better with them.”

    Great advice in a piece Chika. Nice one.


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