by Ucheoma Onwutuebe
The moment I eventually sat up in my grammar was when I turned ten and had to go to a Unity school, where all the girls formed, ‘I started speaking English from the womb.’ Any gaffe could earn you an everlasting nickname.
Once upon a time, I could not speak English. I was two, three or there about. My father propounded this argument that it was better to teach children the local dialect from the cradle and in school, they learn the lingua franca. Of course my parents are well schooled but I happen to have one of those culture-conscious and abiding gentlemen for a father. This idea augured ill with my English-Literature graduate mom as she watched her tots prattling away in Igbo. Even though in the late eighties and early nineties when my elder sister and I were born respectively, the argument made sense and was practiced by many homes in the east.
But the tune of the dance changed when I was four and my kid brother was born. A new commandment was issued: DON’T SPEAK IN THIS HOUSE AGAIN. I guess my mother feared that we would end up not having enough armor in our arsenal of English words. That was my third year in kindergarten and the only English I knew were the ones just enough for me to get by; enough not to get into trouble in class, enough to answer questions correctly (this is a ball, this is a chair, etc etc) and enough to pass my tests. But my deepest expressions could only be conveyed in Igbo.
So to say that the new commandment at home came in handy for us would be such a huge lie. Sometimes simply out of rebellion, we took to signing after she must have denied us a request ( ‘I wouldn’t do it for you till you say it in English’) and after we must have tried and tried till the speech hung in our throat like an over-stressed Blackberry. Sometimes to make it easier, we spoke Engli-Igbo. Check out this conversation between Mom and I;
Mom: How was school today?
I: Fine. Mommy, my nwa-class, Miracle, broke my pencil.
Mom: It is not nwa-class. It is called ‘Classmate’.
The moment I eventually sat up in my grammar was when I turned ten and had to go to a Unity school, where all the girls formed, ‘I started speaking English from the womb.’ Any gaffe could earn you an everlasting nickname. But in my efforts, I never neglected my Igbo. My WAEC result, though riddled with C’s and only two B’s, of the two A’s I made, one was in Igbo.
Well, I could say I turned out well in the English-speaking world, (I am a writer now), yet I deeply cherish learning to speak Igbo from the cradle and I have this strong feeling that it added depth to my imagination and this happens to be it an invaluable gift if you are a writer. What more, I can brag in my resume that I am bilingual or (permit me to joke) even multilingual if I include the smatterings of elementary French we were taught at school: Bonjour, Bonsoir, Bon chance, Ca va….J’t aime!
The desire to write this came upon me when at the salon, the other day, I met a cute little boy who spoke highly-concentrated Igbo. In this 2013, believe me, this is a rare and beautiful thing to behold. To the Ghanaian hair-stylist who does not understand Igbo, he spoke correct English. But to his playmates, he spoke Igbo.
He just reminded me of my little self, several years ago.
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