E Karo. I bo la chi. Ina kwana. Good morning. Different languages, the same intent-to wish well through the morning. Ese. Daalu. Na gode. Thank you. Different languages, same intent-to appreciate you.
In Nigeria, there are 520 languages, not to mention the different dialects of these languages. Spoken by its corresponding ethnic groups, these languages, in some cases, bear similar pronunciations and meanings. In primary school, social studies taught me that language is an element of culture-a part of the way of a life of a group of people. An element that serves as a criterion, for some people, in their choice of spouse or friends. An element that brings people together. An element that divides and could lead to genocides.
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl have no language preference and would rather sway to the rhythm of their hearts. Boy and girl move a step closer and meet their respective parents for permission. Boy’s parents give their blessings but girl’s parents would rather have in-laws that would not need an interpreter. Boy and girl are at a crossroad. Do they move ahead or stand on opposite sides of the barrier erected by their differing languages? As absurd as it seems that in this modern age, a language could come between people, It does. The paranoia of being slighted by the person speaking a language you do not understand regardless of their seemingly harmless demeanor or explanations is a reason for this divide. There are certain expressions that lack their effect and meaning when translated. Explaining the Igbo expression, I na-asu putuputu n’ofe, which translates literally to boiling in soup loses the effect of describing the level of your enjoyment. The insufficient substitute of English translations for some words or expressions is another block for this erected barrier. Sometimes, you find people or organizations unwilling to attend to people who do not speak the same language as they because there is something strangely comforting about hearing your language from the lips of another person.
Mr. A calls his wife to ask about their sick son, from the office, using his ethnic language. Mr. B understands Mr. A’s language and feels sorry for him. So, when their boss suggests that Mr. A stays behind to complete some tasks, Mr. B offers his assistance, instead, because he understands Mr. A’s need to be with his family. A two-way road, this barrier erected by diversity in languages brings the people on each side of the barrier together. There have been instances where speaking the same language fosters relationships between unlike people. Associations, whose members speak a similar Language, exist in most parts of Nigeria, regardless of the predominant language of the community. These associations welcome and take care of their members identifying them as a family because they speak the same language. Appreciating other languages also helps create unity between cultures and people.
Unfortunately, with the modernization of culture, our languages are beginning to sound foreign and uncouth in our ears. There is an increasing number of people who can neither speak nor understand the languages of their ethnic communities. Fortunately, all hope is not lost. In recent times, there has been a conscious effort to save this endangered element of culture. Mnet’s Africa Magic and BBC World provide content in the three major languages in Nigeria: Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa, to remind the newer generation, of languages we attempt to cover up with our borrowed inarticulate accents. Art forms have been infused with local content as well to offer a more fun approach to appreciating the different languages.
Our diverse languages should not serve as a barrier against people or unify only a certain group on one side of the barrier. I spent my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year in Ikoyi village of Oyo State as an Igbo girl living in a Yoruba land. Most of the villagers understood little to no English as they communicated mostly in Yoruba. They treated us well, regardless of our ethnic differences and when you made an attempt to speak or reply in Yoruba, their faces lit up. Making attempts to learn a diverse range of languages is a tool that could demolish this language barrier. Trevor Noah in his book ‘Born a crime’, tells how he was able to defy the segregation in South Africa while he was a high school student because he spoke their languages. Learning to communicate with another person, in their language, could be the bridge we need to cross over this divide.
Africa is a continent riddled by different criteria for stratification but unity, true unity, is a dream we should hold on to. Resolving these criteria could start with our diverse languages by appreciating and learning other languages one word at a time. The only unanswered question is how willing we are to realize our dreams of unity.
Contributed by Ihuoma Uluocha.