The Language of My Mother

When we teach, we learn. When we learn, we empower. And when we empower, we are unstoppable.

I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 2011. While on board back to Houston from Washington, D.C., one of the passengers fixed his beautiful blue eyes on me while I was talking on the phone with my sister, Priscilla. I thought he was entranced by my smile. Finally, he said to me,

“Hello young lady. How’re you doing? I like how you speak. Your voice is crisp. I detect an accent. Where are you from?”

“Thank you, sir. I am from the eastern part of Nigeria, born and raised! That’s the accent you hear. You also have an accent.”

Looking so surprised and perplexed, he asked, “I have an accent?”

“You are an American, right? He nodded. “Yes, you do have an accent. Your accent distinguishes you from me.” I concluded with a smile.

He clearly had to chew on that, and then said:

“Hmmm, you are right. That makes sense. Never thought of it that way.”

He introduced himself. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Oliver. My name is Nkem, short for Nkemdilim.”

His big blue eyes light up his face when he said in excitement, “Oh, my granddaughter’s name is Kem too; short for Kimberley.”

My jaw dropped…

Like we say back home, “Ah! See me wahala ooo!” Here in the States, it’s like saying, “You have got to be kidding me.” BTW — wahala means trouble. “See me trouble ooo! How did I go from Nkemdilim to Kimberly?” I laughed so hard. He laughed out loud too when I explained the confusion. Yes… both names have rings to them. We had an interesting conversation. I too learned a thing or two from Mr. Oliver.

When I speak in my native tongue, Igbo language, I just love it. Anyone around me can tell. Our traditional attire is beautiful in different forms. I am proud to be an Igbo woman… proud of my heritage. It is a big part of my DNA. Though I do not know how to dance to the traditional music, I do know how to cook the eclectic combination of our traditional meals. My non-Nigerian friends love to eat when they come for a visit.

I speak to my children in my native language. As time passes, they understand it more and more. Though born and being raised in the United States, my children know their roots… where their bloodline flows from. I was one of the many parents… guilty of not being consistent communicating with their children from birth in their Mother Tongues. I am on a mission to teach my children. This way, they will teach their children.

Still in summer of 2011, I decided we go back to the basics. I started to teach them the Igbo alphabets: a, b ch, d, e, f g, gb, gw…. parts of the body and more. The first day was somewhat difficult, especially for my two older children. Six years later, they have excelled in understanding the language of their mother. Children tend to assimilate languages faster at a very young age. However, it does not mean that the older ones cannot learn as fast.

My children have native names. They understand and appreciate the meanings of their names and who they are. I remember in the early spring of 2011, my 8-year-old son came home from school, sad. There was an incident at school. One of the students in his class made fun of his name. He was not feeling bad because he made fun of his name, but because he forgot the meaning of it. I reminded him. When he came home the next day, he said,

“Mommy, Guess what? I told that boy what my name means, Chinedum means: God is guiding me. Then, then, I asked him the meaning of his name. His eyes popped and he had nothing to say.” What’s in a meaningful name? There’s always a story behind it. Well, most times. Many Igbo names meanings have the essence of God attached to them.

A great number of Nigerian children and youth, home and abroad, are alien to their culture, their language to be precise. The sad part of it is that some parents are proud when they say, “My kids don’t know how to speak my language.” And they end it with, “Kids of nowadays.” How about the kids born and raised in Nigeria? They are spoken to in English because mom and dad want them to speak and be like the Oyibo (The Whiteman)… more American… more English. In the process, they try to sound American/English more than Americans/the Brits. Haba! There’s nothing wrong with embracing another culture, just do not forget yours. However, the Asians, Hispanics, Indians, for instance, make English Language their second language instead. They appear to be more proud of their native tongue. Heard of this wearisome maxim?

“My parents are Nigerians. But I am American.” It is classic. Who is to be blamed?

Well… when it gets really noisy in my home, I tell my kids to speak in their mother tongue. And, all of a sudden, the house is quiet. As funny as it may sound, it works. Then, they make efforts to communicate with me in the language I was nurtured in. If they are not sure how to say it in Igbo, they ask for permission to say it English, then I translate to teach them. One morning, they wanted to know what’s for breakfast in Igbo. I said, “Fresh croissants and akwa.” By the way, akwa is egg. The next question was: “How do you say croissants in Igbo?” Anyone??? HELP!!! LOL

Same day, my 6-year-old was practicing 1, 2, 3… and some words in Igbo and mispronounced some words while teaching Chima (short for Chimaobim meaning God knows my heart). My oldest child, Chinelo (meaning The Will of God) said to her:

“KeleChi (meaning Thank God), it’s like a rubberband. So you have to stretch it. Each word has a ring to it. Mommy said it’s a tonal language. It’s almost… musical. Remember that word Akwa? It has several meanings because of the different tones.” I was so proud of her for understanding and teaching her younger ones.

The bottom lines:

  • It does not matter where you were born or where you live, teach your children your native tongue, that’s if you know it. If you don’t, find them a tutor.
  • If your spouse is not a native of your country/town, it still does not matter. Teach your children your native tongue.
  • No matter how much you try to be like the Oyibos… or foreign, you are still who you were the day your mother gave birth to you; a Native.
  • Some of us yearn to learn other languages like French, Spanish, and Chinese but not our native tongues. That’s very hypocritical of us. Don’t you think?
  • Even if your parents made the mistake of not teaching you, do not make the same mistake.
  • When you teach your children, they teach their children, and this cycle of ignorance will be broken. This is how culture survives.
  • No matter what, culture matters.
  • Be proud of who you are and not who you are trying to be.
  • This morning, just like yesterday, my children woke up and said to me, “Good Morning Mommy. i larukwa ọfụma?” (Meaning: Good morning, Mommy. Did you sleep well?) Now, that’s a way to greet in my mother tongue.

Be 100 percent organic, after all, it was how you were made.

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