Maakye, Ek’aro, Habari ya asubuhi – Moving beyond Europe, learning African languages


If you want to learn French or Spanish in the UK then your options are endless; it’s almost overwhelming how much choice there is, from various apps to classes and more informal meet-ups where you can learn the language whilst doing a fun activity. Chances are you will already know the basics from when you were at school. The same cannot be said for African languages, which have not been given a place on the national curriculum and don’t seem so easily accessible for anyone who hopes to take up one of the continents many, many languages.

The benefits of learning another language are plentiful – the chance to interact meaningfully with people from a different culture and have a genuine understanding of one another, engaging on a deeper level than is possible when there is not a common language; the freedom to integrate into another country, socially but also through work; improved memory and more.

The benefits are arguably even greater when that language is your parents’/grandparents’ mother tongue. Not so much then a case of learning a new language, for they are the words that have danced around your ears all your life, phrases that you have heard time and time again among family and elders – first generation British Africans – that are both familiar but distant. Words, perhaps, that you hear and recognise without fully understanding. You listen to conversations between these people who so effortlessly switch been English and their mother tongue, picking out odd words which you understand and trying to fill the blanks in between. For many second and third generation British Africans there is a certain level of disconnect, a distance, that exists between their British and African identities. These selves are deeply entwined yet distinct. Am I British? Am I African? Both? Not quite either? Language plays an important role in self-identification and one’s sense of belonging. It would figure then that, in order to encourage the reconciliation of these dual identities, bilingualism would be pivotal – bridging the gap. If you are in another country where you don’t speak a word of the native language you will naturally feel marginalised; an outsider who can be identified as such as soon as you open your mouth. It can also be quite limiting, impeding your ability to express yourself as you wish to, understand others and appreciate their thoughts, perspective, music, literature and more. This marginalisation can feel even more acute when it is the language of a people and country that you identify as your own. A language that surrounds you every day but which is just beyond your grasp, conversations that tease you with the odd familiar word but never reveal their full content or meaning.

Should parents be making more of an effort to teach their children their own mother tongue? Some will argue yes, especially given that is a popular belief that it is easier to learn a second language at a younger age than later in life. However, this can be easier said than done and it is understandable why parents may opt out of doing so. For one, they may not necessarily see the value in doing so. Having worked hard to come to the UK to secure a ‘better’ future for their children, for them to go through the British education system, to access opportunities never afforded to them back home, some first-generation immigrant parents may well wonder what the point is in teaching their kids the language of a place that was their own home, but not that of their offspring, and which in fact they made a conscious decision not to make the birthplace of their kids. Throw into the mix the way in which the English language continues to be held in such high-esteem globally (a lingering legacy of colonialism, viewed as a prerequisite to a better job, better life etc.), and it is little wonder if some migrant parents don’t see a need to equip their children with another language. (Also not to be forgotten, is the seemingly growing presence of anti-immigrant sentiment within Britain - made extra visible during the Brexit campaign - and the pressure on immigrants to ‘speak English.’)

There are some indications however that the British are starting to take increased interest in what lies beyond French, Spanish and German when choosing to learning a second language. With globalisation proving an unstoppable force and the balances of power on the global stage gradually moving away from the West, the peoples, culture and languages from Asia, South America and Africa are coming to the fore. With rapidly growing economies outside of Europe and North America, and the opportunities – for trade, business etc. – which that wealth brings, the West is beginning to sit up and take notice. Suddenly, there is an increased incentive to learn the languages of these countries, which in the future seem set to be global leaders. A British Council report titled ‘Languages for the future’ published in November last year, which ‘identifies the priority languages for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world’ notes Mandarin and Arabic within the top five languages perceived to be most important going forwards. In the top ten, Turkish, Russian and Japanese are also included. In 2016 George Osborne, when Chancellor, committed an additional 10 million pounds of Government funding to hire more Mandarin teachers to teach in secondary schools – a move which also signalled a change in thinking when it comes to which languages British people should be learning.

Who knows, in 2050, we may just see GCSE Yoruba being offered, but we’re not holding our breath. It would be nice to think that in the future some of Africa’s languages will join those of Europe on school curricula, but in the meantime how can you learn African languages here in the UK? Well, there are a number of ways.

Download a language app

Popular free language app Duolingo, which allows you practice for short periods each day in an interactive way, now offers Swahili as an option. At the moment this is the only African language on there, although a glance at their online forum shows that there is demand for more. As you can learn on the go too with your phone, Duolingo is super accessible and means you can easily incorporate learning in to your day, whether it’s on the way to school or work, or sitting at the park.

Buy a good self-teaching book or audio book

If you prefer more traditional methods of learning, get down to a good bookshop like Foyles and you will find quality books and audio books to assist you, available for a wide range of African languages. For example, if it is Igbo you want to learn you can pick up Talk Now! Learn Igbo, a CD aimed at beginners covering useful essentials and topics which you can then test yourself of on through games. They also have phrase books and dictionaries which are great even if you just want to have the very basics before you go on a holiday.

For kids, they also offer bilingual story books which can be a great way to get children accustomed to and learning a second language from a young age. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Grandma's Saturday Soup, both available in Yoruba and English editions, are just two examples.

Language classes

If you are more of a practical learner, then language clubs and meet-ups might be a better option and also offer a more sociable way to learn with others.

Take for example Project 1957's monthly Twi club, ‘designed to bring together beginner and intermediate Twi speakers (both Ghanaian and non-Ghanaians) and provide them with a fun, relaxed and unique environment where they can practice and improve their knowledge of conversational Twi, without the fear of ridicule.’ A club like this really is well-suited to those looking to perfect their spoken language, with the Twi club offering ‘designated specialist speakers who will listen in on conversations, and guide where necessary, which will assist attendees in building confidence in their speaking ability.’

The N Circle’s Nigerian Language Speakers Club is a similar group initiative for those wanting to learn some of Nigeria’s many languages.

A language degree

Want to take it further still? Maybe it’s worth considering a degree.

SOAS University offers courses in the following African languages: Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yorùbá, Zulu through different degree programme options including BA African Language and Culture and BA African Studies. If a degree seems a bit too much of a commitment, Through their language centre, which is open to the general public as well as SOAS students, you can learn Swahili, with two short courses offered - Swahili Beginners (a part-time introduction course taught to a small class ) and Swahili Elementary, which follows on from the beginners class.

So there you go, just because African languages aren’t part of the national curriculum in the UK in the way that European languages are, it is still possible to master them if you are committed. If you’re thinking about taking up a language why not allow yourself to think beyond Europe and encourage others to do the same.

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