Can I speak Yoruba?

I lost my yoruba fluency because someone somewhere felt our native language should be subdued, or perhaps obliterated. After all, Nigeria adopted English as her official language for ease of communicating across the culturally diverse populace. As noble as the idea was to adopt an official language, it was ignoble to systematically subdue the populace’s native language. The way it was done was to designate the native language in schools as vernacular and prohibited. Any student or pupil found speaking her native language is therefore fined a paltry sum of five naira or ten naira. Way back then, ten naira or five naira was a huge sum of money and expensive. Therefore, what students did was either to avoid talking altogether or speak vernacular and stand the risk of paying the fine or getting whipped in the butt.

The error in judgement of prohibiting the native language was that it is entirely possible to teach infants two or three languages, and four is not unheard of. In Europe, a great many toddlers learn four languages with little or no difficulty. Children from the ages of zero to five years do have a spongy brain to learn different languages at the same time. It is the reason why early childhood education is considered crucial because that is when children can absorb better. Therefore, the person who made the policy to squash native language in schools was ignorant of this fact and restricted the brain of children that could otherwise have learnt more.

The resultant effect of an ignorant policy created a generation of adult that has lost fluency in the native language and are unable to pass the language to their children. And it gets even worse, we now have a generation of parents who pay a very high sum of money to get their children to acquire the British or the American accent. Corporate organizations are not left out; a journalist’s chances of getting hired is higher if the British or American accent is on point. A lady can turn down a man’s proposal simply because his English language skill is not up to par. And a film producer can fire a writer if a character is made to speak in pidgin English. The ripple effect of a policy in 1960 is still felt in 2022.

In the year 1997, when I resumed my 100 level school year as an undergraduate; fresh from the secondary school that places very high restrictions on speaking yoruba, I was culture-shocked. The university has no such restriction to the language spoken even though the lecturers communicated in English language. It was acceptable for students to converse with lecturers in yoruba. I was equally shocked to hear two Igbo guys speaking igbo to each other in class. And I remembered thinking to myself, ‘ain’t they ashamed of their language?

It turns out that the unintended consequence of banning native language speaking from primary to secondary school was that a nineteen-year-old girl will come to believe that the native language is something to be ashamed of. It is commonplace to get labelled as illiterate if your English language proficiency is below average or mocked for making grammatical errors and even stigmatized for bad pronunciation.

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