Sannu. n l. Nn. Ushé-ushé. Olo-du-du. I could go on, but if I were to greet you all in every language spoken in Nigeria, I’d use up my word count. Arriving at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, I always have to do a double take when I hear Hausa being spoken.
My ears aren’t used to hearing multiple speakers of the language in one place, interspersed with other languages I don’t quite recognise. I’m merely accustomed to the sounds of Hausa coming from my parents’ mouths, and very occasionally my sisters’ when forced to utter a few words in the language. Nonetheless, I adjust quickly as I embrace being surrounded by more Hausa speakers.
As a nation, we boast of speaking over 500 languages, making us the third most linguistically diverse country in the world. With such linguistic richness across Nigeria, it’s only right that we observe International Mother Language Day (21 February). Introduced by UNESCO in 1999, this day aims to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism, regardless of where you grew up or live as a Nigerian, there’s a language that binds you to your heritage.
The Hausa language has always been very important to me and my identity despite living in England. It’s been my way of connecting with other Northern Nigerians no matter where they are in the world. It allows me to communicate with family who otherwise I would have no way of communicating with. Ultimately, speaking Hausa makes me feel a part of the community in spite of feeling somewhat disconnected at times.
Growing up, my parents spoke to me mostly in Hausa. I would only speak the language with my family and the odd Hausa friends we had, who were few and far between. Hausa became almost like a secret language that I could use when out and about to make comments to my family without anyone in our vicinity understanding. I would mix English and Hausa (and continue to do so) to make up for the Hausa words I didn’t know, and as I continued my way through school, my interest in languages only grew.
Along my language journey, I dabbled in Japanese, Italian and Arabic, and finally settled on French and German as I studied the languages at university. Over here, languages don’t hold the same value as they do in other parts of the world. It’s common knowledge amongst the British that their European counterparts can speak on average about two or three languages to their one, which is so poor and detrimental for the British. Yes, English is a widely spoken language globally, but it’ll only help to speak more than one language.
I’m proud of my ability to speak Hausa. Yes, my accent and pronunciation are not perfect. The British accent sometimes slips through and my mouth can’t always articulate the right sounds. I’ve mixed up words and misgendered nouns, but with limited opportunity to truly practise, why would my Hausa be perfect? I operate in English for the majority of my life and Hausa is simply the language of my family. Nevertheless, my parents raised me ensuring that I could speak the language and I hope I can pass it onto my own children someday.
It’s difficult for those of us in the diaspora to speak our native languages fluently and fluidly, and I think sometimes the ridicule that can come from native speakers prevents some from trying. I know for my own sisters that’s the case as they face comments about the quality of their Hausa. It affects their confidence and they’d rather just not attempt it all. But I persevere, nonetheless.
Despite having a wealth of languages, we risk losing our indigenous languages that make us the linguistically diverse country that we are. Unfortunately, English is becoming a threat to our native languages. With a growing number of middle- and upper-class parents choosing to speak to their children only in English, and many Nigerian parents raising their children in the West doing the same, it’s only a matter of time before we find some of our indigenous languages disappearing.
While English is spoken by 20 per cent of the world’s population, it’s still important to hold on to our own native languages.
With a language disappearing every two weeks, and a further 43 per cent across the world being endangered, we don’t want one of our precious languages to become extinct next. Not only do they serve as a tool for communication, but they also promote unity, cultural diversity and a stronger identity.
Learning languages isn’t easy. I know that all too well. But this linguistic diversity is just one of the many aspects that makes this country unique, and I pray that as time goes on, pride in our mother tongues will be found once again.