Why We're Re-Learning How To Speak Our Mother Tongue

“It’s always been like the thing that’s been missing.”
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“Why can’t you speak your language?” A question that sounds so simple but the answer is usually quite loaded. You’ll be familiar with this question if you’re part of a diaspora.

My mum speaks five languages (yes five - English, French, Swahili, Lingala and Tshibula). Her first language and the one she uses to speak to her family is Swahili. Her second language is French, which is the language she uses to speak to my sister and I. Growing up I’d say we spoke Franglish in the house, meaning my mum would speak to me in French and we’d respond in English or minimal French.

This means that my understanding of French is quite extensive, but my reading and speaking is limited. And since my mother speaks five languages, I have some understanding of each, but I’ve never been pushed to speak any. Which, in truth, has made me feel a bit culturally lost.

This year, I’ve decided to re-learn and improve my French, as I strongly believe it will help me connect with my culture. There are so many songs, books and cultural texts that I don’t understand because I don’t speak my language. Additionally, there’s a whole side of my mother’s family that I can’t speak to because we don’t speak the same language.

This situation is similar for many people who are part of a diaspora. But now, many of us are hitting the text books (or the language apps) to re-learn our mother tongue.

Writer Habiba Katsha is brushing up on her French, her mother's second language.
Habiba Katsha
Writer Habiba Katsha is brushing up on her French, her mother's second language.

Sagal Abdullahi, a 22-year-old community worker and podcast host from London, is Somali and is learning how to speak Somali. “I definitely feel an element of shame,“ Abdullahi says, “I went to university to study languages so aunties in the community would always ask me why I can study languages but not be able to speak my own.”

Sade Oludoyi, a 27-year old human capital consultant from Essex, also felt isolated when she heard people speaking Yoruba around her. “Imagine you’re in a room and everyone’s speaking a foreign language,” she says, “and you have no clue what anything means and you’re not included in the conversation.”

Both of Oludoyi’s parents are Nigerian, but they’re from different tribes. Her mother is Igbo and her dad is Yoruba. Her parents met in Russia, however, so they’d usually communicate as a family in Russian at home.

This meant that Oludoyi wasn’t able to learn either Igbo or Yoruba growing up. Now, she’s chosen to learn Yoruba, as this is the language her fiancé speaks and she wants to pass down the language to her children.

Sade Oludoyi
Sade Oludoyi
Sade Oludoyi

Many of us who’ve grown up in bilingual (or multi-lingual) households can pick up bits and pieces of dialogue, but lack the confidence to speak full sentences.

That’s the case for Arnold Senoga, a 27-year-old project manager from London. “I always understood Luganda because my parents would only speak Luganda to each other still to this day,” he says. “But they never forced us to reply back in Luganda.”

Luganda is a language spoken by people in Buganda, which is in the southern part of Uganda.

So what’s made so many young people seek out language lessons? Lockdown – and having more free time – has certainly played a part. Then there’s also the appreciation of culture which comes with age.

When you’re young, you don’t understand the significance of knowing the language of your heritage. Especially when you live in an English-speaking country, learning a different language can feel unnecessary. But as you start to get older and watch other family members speaking your mother tongue, you realise how much you’re missing out.

I suppose I’ve always loved my culture in a way, but more so in recent years.” Senoga says.

Arnold Senoga
Arnold Senoga
Arnold Senoga

In the last few years, a lot of Senoga’s family members started passing away and he wasn’t able to speak to them, as many of them didn’t speak English. “That felt like a huge loss of connection as I wasn’t able to understand their stories or communicate with them,” he says.

“Also I’d like to be able to document and read things about Buganda and my family in particular.”

The decision to learn a language is easy, but actually learning it is another matter.

Abdullahi studied French and Spanish at Queen Mary university but says teaching herself Somali at home since August of last year has been far more challenging.

“Somali isn’t like Arabic or Japanese where there’s many resources for it, it’s very limited,” she says. “But I’ve signed up found some online lessons which start this weekend.”

Sagal Abdullahi
Sagal Abdullahi
Sagal Abdullahi

Oludoyi found her Yoruba teacher through an online network called Black Young Professional (BYP). She’s been doing lessons since February 2021.

“I opted for one to one lessons so I can learn at my own pace and ask questions freely,” she says. “My teacher has become like a friend and we banter and I send him videos for him to translate.”

At the beginning of her lessons she learnt the basics such as the alphabet, phonetics, days of the weeks and numbers. A year later, she’s learning comprehension and translation and tries to speak to her fiancé in Yoruba.

Senoga has been teaching himself Luganda for a year on and off . He’s been helped by the Ugandan community on Clubhouse. “There are some aunties in the community who wrote their own books, so I’ve bought them and have been trying to learn through them,” he says.

He’s still finding it difficult to learn Luganda, but he practices by speaking to his Jajja (grandmother) in Luganda on the phone.

Despite the difficultly, learning these languages has been a positive experience for all.

Getting to grips with Somali has made Abdullahi feel more connected to her culture. “I think it’s always been like the thing that’s been missing,” she tells me. “I went to visit my grandma lives in Saudi and I was forced to speak Somali as she doesn’t speak any English.”

Similarly, Oludoyi has enjoyed discovering the “poetic” nature of Yoruba proverbs, which have “really beautiful meanings”.

“My lessons have made me research more into history and I find myself watching Yoruba movies now more as it helps with understanding the language,” she says. “I really do feel more connected to my culture.”