I have a confession to make. Although I am Nigerian-American, Yoruba to be exact. I can’t speak my own native tongue.
Now, the occasional trendy pidgin phrases like “Ko le work” and “Naija no dey carry last” has slipped out of my mouth a few times, along with the basics like “Ekaaro” and “Omi” to name a few. But when I need to reply in Yoruba to the JJC (Johnny Just Come-To America) who is wittily trying to test my Yoruba aptitude for baseless comparisons, I freeze up and the words get stuck in my throat. I mean, I can understand what they’re saying, for the most part, but to give an eloquent reply like a learned Yoruba-Nigerian is a challenge. Most JJCs snicker and smile, condescendingly, at my rudimentary ability to properly communicate in the language that literally shapes my identity by the framing of my given birth names.
I don’t know what it is! One may question, how can I generally understand Yoruba when it’s spoken to me, but I can’t speak. Another may question how can I loosely read Yoruba, and still can’t speak it. Even Yoruba speakers that can’t read their own language, don’t have the reading skill set I’ve developed through reading my grandfather’s letters to my mom. To be honest, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a bit disturbed about my predicament. I study Latino-Americans and admire their effortless flow of Spanish to English and English to Spanish without hesitation or fear. And the large Ethiopian-American population around me that speak in their native tongues with the same free flow as they do English. Without the fear of sounding awkward, without the fear of being teased by people who were never patient enough to teach you, without the fear of not sounding authentic. Regardless of what generation, first-generation or second, it seems like their language is still embedded in their immigrant American stories.
Yet, I can’t completely fault my parents and their generation for the lack of necessary intentional language training. Because a large number of them who migrated to the States in the 80’s came for academic advancement. Part of their academic training was to comfortably assimilate into the American economy, not necessarily just the culture. Their priority was to become financially stable through their chosen career paths, sacrificing time spent at home in exchange for overtime pay and second jobs. Absentee parents created latchkey kids who adopted identities from their Black American friends, in which Ebonics became easier to understand and speak instead of our native tongues.
I have a cousin that grew up in Nigeria until she was 10 and spoke Yoruba fluently. When she moved to the States, she assimilated and lost the ability to speak Yoruba, because speaking it at home wasn’t emphasized as opposed to English. But when I delved deeper, she confessed that she just hadn’t tried to continue to speak her native tongue. It was not needful. And now when she tries, she feels like she is “trying.” Her awareness gave me an epiphany. Our psychological trauma of not feeling authentic continues to prevent us from taking the leap to speak a language that has been embedded in our culture in a way that affords us the opportunity to master it. Yet we don’t. Simply put, we fail to speak because of lack of confidence. In order for us to start speaking the language, we need to accept our identities as cultural hybrids, push past our limitations and accept the responsibility of being immersed in two different dominant cultures competing with one another and complementing each other at the same time. There are advantages of being bilingual, even if the current economic market doesn’t recognize it for Yorubas.
As Nigerian-Americans, it’s okay that we aren’t there yet. That we aren’t confident enough to speak it. Because the same responsibility we incurred as hybrids is shared by those that mock us every time we try; by the parents who didn’t enforce our native tongues until we were old enough to know that it should have been, by the aunties and uncles that speak to us in Yoruba and accept an English response as the status quo, and by those who “high key” judge without understanding our cultural perspectives and offering to teach. I’m okay with who I have become, while striving to be better so that my kids, the next generation, can learn not to refuse.