Igbo 101 diary: how it really feels when learning a new language
In a previous piece entitled ‘Our cultural heritage and external validation’, I highlighted the irony of not appreciating our African cultural values such as languages until we see or hear others, usually Westerners, embracing it with pride.
While we marvel at foreigners or non-natives speak any native African language fluently, it helps to get a sense of the underlying emotions behind such efforts. Specifically, what peculiar feelings lie at the heart of the learner as he or she wades through the process?
Today, I can answer that within the context of my current journey with the Igbo language.
A few weeks ago, I started taking private Igbo language lessons with a dedicated Igbo teacher who is also the main content contributor on the Igbo101 app for Android and iOS. My decision to learn Igbo is driven by 2 primary reasons. Igbo is one of Nigeria’s major languages with over 20 million speakers, hence I’d love to be able to converse fluently with friends, families, Igbo101 customers and compatriots who speak Igbo. Another objective is to gain insights from a beginner’s perspective for the next version of the Igbo101 app that’s currently in development.
With 6 classes and over 12 hours spent learning Igbo, one thing I can better relate to is the feeling of wanting what someone else takes for granted. That has become the highlight of some of my experiences so far.
In one notable experience, after a few private classes where I spent time alone with onye nkuzi m (my teacher), she insisted it was time to gauge my knowledge by interacting with other Igbo teachers and students in a formal school environment.
We started off at the teachers’ staff room with her colleagues. All 4 of them spoke in Igbo among themselves while I sat listening to see if I could pick out anything based on what I’d learnt prior to. It was a reality check as I barely made it past a few words. Not because some of the words weren’t familiar. Rather, the pace at which they spoke was faster (or normal) compared to that which onye nkuzi m had been teaching me with (understandably so).
Also, the art of deconstruction where I listen, process and translate takes a good deal of minutes. Afterwards, I felt disappointed. The confidence I had gained over the last few classes prior to also seemed to disappear. There was nothing I wanted more than being able to fluently express myself to join in such Igbo conversations. I eased up a bit after a light conversation with one of the teachers who showered praises on me for what I knew so far; basic conversations around my well being, purpose etc.
Next, I joined onye nkuzi m as she taught JSS2 students (equivalent of grade 8 by US standards). I sat with a student named Victor and was keen to get a conversation going with him in Igbo. That took a while with my deconstruction process. First, I wrote down what I wanted to say in English, translated word by word in Igbo before stringing together what I felt was the right order using conjunctions bu, ka, na etc.. Though I could vouch for my written translations, speaking (pronunciation) remains a work in progress, so Victor had a hard time understanding me. Initially, he was patient with me as I asked basic questions like, “I n’asu Igbo n’ulo (do you speak Igbo at home)?” I tried to string together complex questions which he didn’t quite get because of my poor pronunciations and his answers in Igbo were too complex for me too, so I used one of my best lines repeatedly, “kwugharia ya (Repeat it).” At one point, he stared at me in a manner I interpreted as “Please speak English which you understand and save me your broken Igbo.” I felt disappointed but managed to laugh it off. As a learner, you learn to laugh and be patient with yourself.
Reflecting on those two episodes, for the native speaker of a language others yearn for, I guess it’s natural to not think much of what we do subconsciously. It’s how things come to be taken for granted. Case in point, as a native Yoruba speaker, I understand and speak it effortlessly. As such, it’ll take some effort and exceptional encounter for me to consciously reflect on how hard that may be to someone else who’s not had the privilege of being raised in an environment where Yoruba’s the language of communication and so easy to pick up.
But then, how much more native Igbo people who do not understand Igbo for obvious reasons? How much more Africans in the Diaspora who can’t speak a word other than their colonial tongues? My mind raced back to the words of Malcolm X in his autobiography.
In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt.
His words make more sense to me now with the added benefit of context. I want to speak Igbo fluently like a native Igbo speaker! I crave it badly! Even though I’m not Igbo, Igbo is everywhere around me — neighbours, families, friends, work colleagues and even Igbo101 customers. For those reasons, my yearning for Igbo isn’t out of place.
With my ongoing experience with Igbo, I have a better appreciation of non-natives who speak other languages.
My Igbo journey continues…
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