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Adebayo Adegbembo: Lessons From South Africa on Native Languages



dreamstime_xl_34252813During my recent trip to South Africa, I visited an old friend who is now resident in the country. Obinna and I had been neighbours back in Lagos until he relocated to Johannesburg 6 years ago. Now married to a South African native with a 4-year old son, Chima, I observed some interesting traits in his home.

Chima’s mom spoke to him in Xhosa (one of South Africa’s native languages) mixing it with English occasionally. On the other hand, Obinna spoke only in English to his son. Thus, I could tell that Chima already had a good understanding of Xhosa and English for a boy his age. I tried some Igbo words with him but he just stared at me in bewilderment.

When I asked Obinna why Chima didn’t seem to know a word in his native Igbo language, he attributed it to environmental influence. He went on to add that if they were living in Enugu, the reverse would be the case since most people in Enugu speak Igbo regardless of what they spoke at home. Based on his argument, even if Chima’s mom didn’t consciously speak to him in Xhosa, he would eventually pick up the language from regularly associating with his peers who speak Xhosa. In other words, Chima’s understanding of Xhosa was not because of the deliberate effort by his mom.

While I do agree that environments have a role to play as I’ve seen with non-indigenes who speak the native language of their host communities, I posed two rhetorical questions to him. “How do you think the kids in your neighbourhood came to understand Xhosa?” “How come you don’t understand Xhosa as much as Chima despite 6 years of living in South Africa?” He smiled. I had made my point. The answer is in the deliberate effort that parents like his wife make to help children learn their native languages at an early age.

To get another sense of how South Africans feel towards their native languages, I set out to consciously examine the subject on subsequent encounters during my stay.

I held a Digital Storytelling workshop with iAfrikan for about 30 primary school kids at the JoziHub in Johannesburg. The kids aged between 4 and 14 years provided ideas on local stories while I guided them through the process of scripting, drawing, voiceover recording and editing. Throughout the process, I witnessed how deeply ingrained the native languages were to the kids. Even though communication was in English, the kids often expressed themselves in the native languages most notably Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa. When I asked for translations from English to say Zulu, they provided them with ease. When it came to presenting a story idea for us to work on, the kids all agreed on the one put forth by one of them titled, “How to eat Umngqusho (Umngqusho is a local South-African staple).” Our central story characters were also named Tau and Sekolopata: Lion and Tortoise in their native languages.

Thus, it appeared to me that these kids had strong foundations in their native languages that could only be associated with their parents and the values attached to those languages by South African society.

Another revelation was that most if not all of these kids understood more than 1 South African native language including English. When I asked my colleagues, I was told that South Africa’s 11 official languages are used in schools to teach kids depending on the dominant language in the province. In order words, subjects such as Mathematics and Science are taught using native languages.

Picking up from my last visit, I explored places that I’d read about in Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. This time, Constitution Hill was my point of call. It is famous for its landmark old Fort Prison where Nelson Mandela and other blacks were held in deplorable conditions. Now a tourist attraction, I took a tour of the old prison as well as the Constitutional Court. On the latter, written in bold attractive letters were the phrases ‘Constitutional Court’ in South Africa’s 11 official languages. It was yet another evidence of the depth of South Africa’s native languages relative to its public institutions.

Above all, there are common themes to Nigeria’s native languages. Specifically, I heard of kids being mocked for their poor display of spoken English in contrast to South Africa’s native languages. Such only happens where a particular language is seen as a status symbol by a section of society as in Nigeria. With regards to the language of learning, an older colleague with whom I’d worked on the Igbo101 app mentioned how he was taught Mathematics and other subjects in Igbo while growing up in South-Eastern Nigeria in the 60s. That doesn’t seem to be the practice anymore.

In general, from what I made of my firsthand experience, South Africans seem to have the right attitude towards promoting and preserving their native languages. It’s a worthy example for Nigeria and Nigerians.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Adebayo Adegbembo is the founder of Genii Games Limited; creators of interactive mobile apps, animated videos and workshops to make African Cultures fun for kids. A trained Engineering Surveyor from the University of Lagos, Bayo went the route of entrepreneurship in fulfillment of his passion for writing, technology, arts and culture. Follow him on Twitter @technobayo


  1. Mama T.

    June 22, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    This is a great article!
    I live in USA and it is very rampant that when Nigerian see each other, they prefer communicating in English. I have told many of my family friends, if you can’t talk to me or my kids in Yoruba and you’re a Yoruba, don’t say anything. We only have our names in Native language. If Nigerians are not careful, oyinbo people will be teaching the future children their Nigerian language. It’s just a shame when people change their well meaningful name to something else just because of modernization.

    • tunmi

      June 22, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      @Mama T, that’s interesting. From my experience, it is the other way around. They acknowledge one another in their native languages whether it is Yoruba or Igbo. The same goes for the Sierra Leonan people I’ve come across.

      Is it a location thing or a class thing?

    • Mama T.

      June 22, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      @Tunmi, I don’t know which is which for them jare?.
      @Geraldine, yes the kids can learn the 3 languages too. I’ve seen a lot of kids doing that here. I don’t know how the parents are working that out though but if you see them, you’ll be very impressed.
      Yoruba lede mi jare.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      June 23, 2016 at 1:40 am

      @Tunmi @MamaT, it really does depend on how much value the parents place on the language. I’ve heard parents ask of what importance are our languages from an economic standpoint. They question the relevance in today’s world where the language of commerce are Chinese, English and the likes.

  2. @edDREAMZ

    June 22, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    My dream is to become a linguist but i ban Zulu tribe abeg…..

  3. Geraldine

    June 22, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Great and on point. I can understand when a child whose parents are Igbo and Yoruba can only speak English language(learning all three will be fantastic). I find it ridiculous that a child whose parents are Igbo (or Yoruba) cannot speak Igbo (or Yoruba) , especially if the parents can speak their native language. Let’s make conscious kids our native languages.

    • Wanderlust _Trekeffect

      June 22, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      My dad is half American half Igbo but having spent most of his young years in Nigeria, he is capable of speaking Igbo, my mum however is Yoruba and speaks It well. I speak and understand neither, I sometimes wish I did, at some point years back I was at my Aunt’s place in Nigeria for a couple of weeks , she often interacted in Yoruba with her kids and from that little exposure I picked a little bit of Yoruba. A lot of times relatives ask my parents why they didn’t try enforcing these languages at an early age, my dad couldn’t care less lol. My mum would sometimes attempt to teach us but it only lasts for 30mins then she goes back to English. I gave up asking for lessons in Nigerian languages after several failed attempts and I’m just focusing on German now.?

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      June 23, 2016 at 1:48 am

      Thanks for sharing. Your experience reinforces the fact that it’s up to parents to help children pick up these languages especially during their formative years. Ironically, as a child, it doesn’t require much effort. Rather, conversations in the home using any of these native languages remains the best approach. It could be tricky for parents from different ethnic groups but Obinna’s case proves it’s doable provided either or both parents make the conscious effort. On another hand, it’s sad to see you give up on trying to get native language lessons. I can point you in the way of tutors if I know your precise location. Also, you could check out the Yoruba101 and Igbo101 apps on for a start.

    • Geraldine

      June 23, 2016 at 1:01 am

      ….Let’s make conscious efforts to teach our kids…

  4. Tunde

    June 22, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    A lot of Igbo people living abroad would prefer English to their native language; contrary is the case with the Yorubas whose children pick the language both from their parents and the many Nollywood movies in Yoruba. Little wonder why Igbo language is endangered. I have six boys; all US citizens – they are bilingual, yoruba being the language of communication at home. They live it!

    • mrs chidukane

      June 22, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      Tunde speak for yourself, no need to make this a Yoruba vs Igbo thing.

    • Naijatalk

      June 22, 2016 at 10:18 pm

      Tunde, I’m married into a Southwest family. None of the children speak or understand the language. The oldest is 18. The families around us have the same problem. You really should observe more. It’s a concern for our generation (assuming you’re between 25-40)

    • Bobo

      June 22, 2016 at 11:15 pm

      @Tunde, this Yoruba kids abroad speaking Yoruba is a myth. I’m married to a Yoruba lady who comes from a large family and NON of the children born here in England can hold a coversation in Yoruba. I see the same thing in families from other Nigerian tribes. I believe it’s a generation problem.

    • Emeka

      June 23, 2016 at 1:57 am

      A beg, call a spade a spade, I am Igbo and Igbo people are well known for this , they are ashamed of their language and where they come from. They will deny you in a heart beat. The most scattered and confused people in the planet. Even Nnamdi kanu recognize and talks about this in all his broadcasts

    • Nonsense

      June 23, 2016 at 9:22 pm

      Liar Emeka. You are not Igbo. Your own family alone constitute the most confused and scattered people on the face of the planet not the Igbo tribe.

  5. le coco

    June 22, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    i guess it all depends on where you go.. i have always admired south Africans love for their languages. not saying nigerians dont love ours… here in SA almost all the nigerians i have met are very proud of their language and they speak it almost anywhere they meet other Nigerians

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      June 23, 2016 at 1:50 am

      What is common is Nigerians of the older generation speak these languages to themselves. The problem and concern is for the kids. Most of them communicate in English to their kids. My concern is for these kid.

  6. Spirit

    June 22, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Truth is that language is in decline in Nigeria mostly in the southern part of the country. Aside homes, language should be taught in schools even written in WAEC examinations then you can learn another language of interest aside the ones you speak in your homes .

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      June 23, 2016 at 1:07 pm

      I think within the Nigeria itself, there is a lesson to learn from the Hausa language. It seems a stronger and more acceptable language and lingua-franca in Northern Nigeria

  7. californiabawlar

    June 23, 2016 at 8:22 am

    Hmmmn, my Yoruba no be for here! My parents enforced that we spoke and read both perfectly. I was raised to be proud of speaking my language. Now, I don’t know what happened o, but one of my sisters has refused to give her children Yoruba names much less care if they can speak it.
    Personally as much as I speak a lot of my language, even on here. I don’t understand the IMMEDIATE need to converse with a STRANGER in Yoruba. I don’t know, you introduce yourself and from your name some people will just put you on the spot…like “haaa! you’re even Yoruba sef! abeg speak our abinibi language o jere…” and my only thing I’m usually able mutter is a “Bawo ni..”(how are you). AWKWARD. From there they just proclaim that I’m butty…I usually just smile and keep it moving. My people can be so brash! I don’t know if you expect me to start reciting ofo and ogede (incantations) to prove my authenticity.

  8. zzzzzzzzzzzzz

    June 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    I think most languages should be documented for easy study and learning. it is easier to learn Spanish or German online than it is to learn any of the Nigerian languages.

  9. sammiewolf

    June 24, 2016 at 9:40 am

    I see your point sir. However, I’d say the answers to your rhetorical questions are; 1. They learnt because they grew up surrounded by adults who mainly spoke Xhosa. 2. Children learn languages way quicker than adults. I think we are making too much of the language thing. For instance, have you come across any child who grew up in eastern, western or northern Nigeria, and is unable to speak the language of that region no matter how much English their parents load their heads with? Majority of Nigerians who start a family in diaspora, give their children the citizenship of that country. I am Yoruba for instance, and I love and speak this language so much, (proverbs and all) that my colleagues call me ancient. However, if I move to say, the US, blend in, have children, and give them the blue passport with the mind that this is their home now (and this is true of many Nigerians abroad), of what use will Yoruba be to them? wouldn’t it be more beneficial to give them lessons in Spanish, French or Latin? That is assuming I’m willing to put attachments like roots and history aside and just be logical because if I did care about those things, then I would start a family in Nigeria and train my kids the Nigerian way!…This is just my opinion o. I plead mercy!

  10. Anonymous

    June 24, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Nice article, I watch a lot of South Africa soapies & I love how they always speak both English & their language, like u said I think parents have a large role in ensuring that their kids speak their indigenous language, I have a friend who is Fulani & is married to a Hausa man, she speaks Fulani to her kids & makes sure her maids teach her kids Hausa.

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