Tips (and a story) on how to share your mother language with your child

I recently did my first Facebook Live on this subject earlier this week.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to catch it yet please do so.  Here’s the link Safeguarding our children’s cultural heritage – language

The blog post below is adapted from one I did last year on another site.  I don’t think I’m going on too much about this, and I hope it makes those of us who have the gift of having a second language, regardless of what language that is, sit up a little straighter and make some adjustments to ensure our children don’t lose their heritage gift.  A lot of the messaging has stayed the same, but I have added at the end, some of the tips talked about in the video mentioned above.

The panic

Africanfinestmums - Map showing origin of Ndi Igbo
By NuclearVacuum – BlankMap-Africa2.svg, CC0,

The Igbo language is in danger of going extinct!

Feel free to pick your spelling, Igbo or Ibo (both pronounced E-bo), same thing, danger still remains. There are a few articles out there which support this prediction. One I cited and found interesting is by Chuma Uwechia published last year, as a follow up to UNESCO’s prediction in 2012. UNESCO and endangered Igbo language. I could stop right there and just let you read the article, but before I do just wanted to add my 2 cents.

It’s not like this is news to me, as all around it’s obvious that for more recent generations (I’m referring to the 1970s onwards) the Igbo language is being passed on less and less. However seeing it in black and white on paper, having it acknowledged by experts, international bodies etc., does make me panic a bit. Actually, a lot. Does it matter? Should we care? What should we do?


My story

Africanfinestmums - traditional food (Igbo) offered to welcome guests
Traditional Igbo kolanut – presented to welcome guests

I grew up in a strong Igbo family, both parents Igbo and as far down the line as I look all Igbo. All my names are Igbo names (note trend identified in the article). This is something I have called my parents to task for, seeing as they’ve both got English first names (in fact few people know my Dad’s Igbo name, or that he has one). Their pride in their culture and language didn’t fully translate however in spoken form with their children. Did they teach me Igbo or speak it predominantly whilst I was growing up? My answer is a resounding no. They spoke to each other, their siblings and friends in Igbo so I heard the language and could understand the basics of it but grew up speaking very little of it and wasn’t required to do so. On the surface this was fine, or so I thought. After all, most people in this modern day and age by default are leaning towards English as the global language, so to get ahead in life understanding and speaking English is where it’s at. Right?  Hmmmmm.

Are you a true Igbo girl?

Africanfinestmums - traditional house in Anambra, Nigeria
My grandfather’s house in my village

Skip a few years to secondary school and I gained admission to Federal Government Girls College Onitsha (FGGC Osha). This is in my home state Anambra where I’d visited many times, but I was essentially a Lagos girl having lived there most of my life. Lagos is the melting pot of Nigeria and was considered the most cosmopolitan city at that time. That didn’t matter to the main base of students who attended FGGC Osha who were Igbo. Some found it amusing that I, an Igbo girl with a very popular Igbo name, was lacking in the area of speaking the language. I was teased. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t malicious to the point of bullying, but it was to the point of scoffing and not being taken seriously in conversations on the subject of Igbo culture, history or traditions. It irked me so much that I determined within myself to do something about it.

For the next few years I paid closer attention when anyone spoke Igbo around me, taking note of the sounds, tone and practicing pronouncing the words when I was alone. Spending holiday time in the village and listening to conversations amongst the elders was invaluable. I also practiced speaking to others in Igbo more often, speaking my own version of “Engri-Igbo” (English decorated with Igbo here and there) at every opportunity. I won’t lie some laughed (okay, many laughed), when I mispronounced some words. Case in point the word “akwa” has about 3 different meanings based on changes in accents on the letters, which if mishandled will leave your audience saying “eh?!” as you’ve either said clothes, egg or cry.

Luckily I didn’t let it put me off and the more I practiced the better I got. I’m no master for sure, but as we say in Nigeria, “you can’t sell me” in Igbo. Yes I got an “F” in my senior secondary certificate exam in Igbo, but that was my only fail, and I was proud of myself for trying. Also of my other classmates who also sat the exam my F was the highest ranking F of the lot, and to my credit I didn’t walk out of the exam hall halfway through it like the others did, so there!

Passing it on

Africanfinestmums - proudly celebrating heritage and culture

Skip forward many more years, another generation, my children are now in the picture. After many hits and misses with this I realise that being able to speak their mother language is a gift for my children, and I need to be more intentional in making sure they do not lose it.  I do make a conscious effort to communicate with them in Igbo and they understand basic words, but I need to do more.

I’ve heard the argument that the reason the parent doesn’t communicate in their mother language is because they don’t want the child to struggle in English and subsequently get left behind by peers at school. Personally I think that argument falls apart when you look at Asian, Eastern European, French or even Ghanaian families. My list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the more notable ones in my experience. They all seem to do just fine with speaking English and have the added advantage of a closer connection with their cultural identity and history, through speaking the language of their heritage.

Also, doesn’t it piss you off, (and make you a little bit jealous) when a parent switches and starts talking to their child in their own language, and you’re dying to know what they’re saying but have no clue? You on the other hand are stuck having to communicate in plain old English which everyone can hear, giving you no chance to say, “you better get down from that tree before I…..,” in secret code.


Personal disclaimer

Africanfinestmums - founder

Thank you for reading this far, and please forgive any perceived bias on Igbo in this post, I’m just speaking from personal experience. Whatever tribe you’re from or language you speak surely it’s worth considering if your kids are best served learning another language like French or Spanish in school, and they don’t even know the language that is part and parcel of their heritage. The language that is such a big component of their cultural heritage and identity. We cannot be more English than the English, no matter how we try.


Africanfinestmums - It's never to late to learn

So let’s stop playing the blame game, and look at practical steps we can take to address this.

  1. Teach or get a tutor to teach.   If you can speak your mother language, then great, teach your child.  You can start off small with every words and phrases.  If the child is younger, use part of bedtime story time to teach him/her the words.  Introduce it more into your vocabulary when you converse with them (particularly with older children).  There are many beginners’ guide books on so many languages.  If you don’t believe me just test Google and do a search.  If you can’t speak your language, you can find a tutor or language class (some of these are even online).  Test Google again and you’ll be amazed what you can find.
  2. Increased exposure to environments where your language is being spoken.  If your child doesn’t speak your mother language but can understand some of it, it is highly likely a bi-product of you speaking it at home to your spouse/partner, sibling or friend on a regular basis.  That shows you that being exposed to environments where your language is spoken helps them soak it up even from the background.  The more they are in such environments, the more they can soak up.  I gave the example in the video of attending Igbo church, and how it motivates my children to want to study, better pronounce and understand words they have heard.
  3. Use technology.  Thank God for technology (sometimes), it can actually come in very handy.  There are language apps which are great for if you have a child old enough to have a phone.  Instead of downloading another game (which doesn’t make any sense and will waste 30 odd minutes of their life), why not download a language app.  Apparently there’s an app for everything these days, so hurray for apps that make sense.  There are loads out there, but here’s one my daughter found earlier Beginner Igbo and it’s free!
  4. Get the Grands involved.  If you still have your parents, older uncles and aunties around, you can get them involved to help you teach your child.  It’s not only a great opportunity for them to pass on your mother language, but also a great opportunity for your child to hear amazing stories – personal or folklore – that teaches him/her about their culture.  Most grandparents are itching to share their stories and talk to someone who’ll listen, so why not build and create that extra special bond with their grandchildren where they can pass on their language too?  I’d say that’s a win-win for everyone.
  5. Be consistent.    This is perhaps the hardest, but most important tip.  Consistency pays in pretty much every area of life and living and this one is no exception.  If you keep at it, you and your child will reap dividends that money can’t buy.

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2 thoughts on “Tips (and a story) on how to share your mother language with your child”

  1. this is so important. Thanks to my loving grandmother who I first met when I was 6 and immediately fell in love with and who did not speak English, I speak my local language but to my shame, my son doesn’t much to my regret. it is really important to ensure that we do teach our children wherever possible. it just allows them to have that connection.

    1. I agree Rita. Thanks for reading and commenting. Well done to your grandmother. Her example with you adds weight to my tip to use the Grands to help pass it on.

      Now what are you going to do about your son ??

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