I’m an African but… English is my first language

DISCLAIMER: I do appreciate African cultures; they are beautiful when you see them all come together in their diversity, but for the love of them all, I just cannot seem to get a hang on the indigenous languages.

I’m impressed by the African countries that have their indigenous languages recognised as national languages but I’m not sure how it works. I’d definitely love to explore.

Nigerian Pidgin got a go ahead as one of the 12 languages on BBC News as part of the World Service Expansion. And I’m curious; does every Nigerian speak pidgin? South Africa has 11 national languages, yes eleven. This always gets my eyes bulging.

Let me just talk about my country already.

There are over 40 indigenous languages in Uganda, but the official languages are English and Kiswahili. Firstly, I think Kiswahili was added as they tried to integrate the East African Community, and is it working?! Hehe

I guess you want to know how many of these languages I can speak.

Not to take the highway, I reside in Kampala, the capital city. It’s where I was born and bred. English is largely spoken here but because of a tribe that once dominated the central region, Luganda is also widely spoken in Kampala. Some even argue that they want it as a national language but we shall debate that another day.

So here is the twist; I just realized that I have lived a lie my whole life. I thought I could speak my language so well till the day I was told to make a speech. My brother likes to say there is a way the mind just ties up when it comes to speaking these languages in an organized manner so I guess we are in a jungle mix with languages.

Isn’t it ironic when you speak English so well and you get the side comments, but when you try to speak a local language it’s just not good enough?

Hey, let’s not forget that you are supposed to know your parents’ languages, and then they still want you to speak Luganda, Kiswahili, and of course, English. Who said this is easy?

You may be wondering why the fuss. Meanwhile, my mum told us she intentionally taught us her local language because she knew that the moment we stepped into school, it was a goner and of course, now when you listen to millennials speak they seem to have a language of their own.  Sometimes, our parents say we sound like we’re speaking slang all through when it’s just a mix of English and a few words in different indigenous languages here and there.

My point basically is that we Africans should stop the headache of bickering about languages. And I can’t support Luganda being part of Uganda’s national languages.

One of my first attempts at speaking Luganda was in University. Yes, it was that far along (side note: people expect you to know Luganda when you live in Kampala but I was not in tune). So on this day I attempted to speak Luganda, my friends laughed at me and they never let me forget it. That killed any other attempts for me to bother with the language. Now I use it only when it’s important because, how much more humiliation can one face?

Then there’s the case of you just not escaping the judgement of not knowing your parents’ languages especially when you travel to the villages. Imagine travelling to an area where it’s not even where your parents are from. You better have a best friend who speaks the language by your side.

It is now common that many people my age can barely speak their own local languages. Yes, intermarriages happened and some people don’t even know where their villages are, but no, we are not pointing fingers.

I understand the language identity but it’s a whole mess up here where you hear comments like:

“I wouldn’t date someone with a bad accent for English”.

“How can’t you speak your language? What do you speak at home?”

“Ahhh but that’s a lie, where don’t they speak Luganda in Kampala?”

“That girl is proud, she can’t speak her language” (loosely translated), etc.

Now that we have friends getting married it’s interesting when you attend a traditional ceremony and you can’t even pick a single word so you just follow as if on mute.

I once attended a friend’s wedding where the bride and groom were from different tribes, and they had MCs trying to communicate for the other relatives but imagine what it was like for those of us who didn’t belong to either tribe. We ended up laughing at ourselves throughout the whole experience.

I currently have over 30 nieces and nephews, yes I have a large family, and I assure you they know any local languages. So, we are not going to start blaming anyone here except the fact that this language thing is becoming increasingly difficult.

Schools are trying to integrate languages into their curriculum but of course, most students choose foreign languages like French, German, Spanish, etc.

A friend recently assumed I speak Kiswahili because I’m from East Africa. I didn’t correct them; after all we are neighbours to Kiswahili speaking countries.

Currently yeah, I speak English as my first language, in fact, it’s how I best express myself, and I will not be afraid to say I’m most comfortable speaking it.

I can speak my parents’ language enough to get by not enough to discuss current affairs. (On the plus side, my parents’ language is similar, just imagine those with mixed parents.)

I speak some Luganda, one that enables me to buy something from a market but I still grapple with the greetings that differ during the day. In fact, I freeze.

I also speak Kiswahili that says hey I speak kidogo kidogo (small small).

As for the 37 other indigenous languages, I see you, I love you but we are not warring over this. I’m an African but when it comes to speaking the indigenous languages, I just can’t!

I’m waiting to see how this will pan out for the next generation.

This post was written by my delightful Ugandan sister, Connie Dia who blogs HERE (be sure to check her out). This is another episode on the “I’m an African but…” blog chain started by Valentine Writes and Bolaji Gelax.

You too can be a part of this chain by writing a creative piece on what (anything at all) you are expected to be, do or like as an African but you so not like or are not. Send your piece to gelaxchatroom@gmail.com or valentinemakoni@gmail.com.


7 thoughts on “I’m an African but… English is my first language

  1. Great thoughts. However, we should not forget that colonialism played a significant role in shaping our views of local languages and local vernacular. An African was taught to laugh at himself or herself, even to the point of thinking that to be ‘human is to look like the colonial master’, and some began to seek some skin whitening lotions and all ‘to look more human’ in their minds. But, we should also not forget that none of us lives in a vacuum or on a locked island. With globalization; migration, the Social Media, Online dating, religion and all, English has made communication much much easier. Nonetheless, it is undobtedly true that some of our folklore, drama, music and all is lost through the process of translation, because things fall in the cracks between. It’s also funny that you wrote: someone wi say, I wouldn’t date someone with a bad accent for English”, but which one is the correct accent and correct to who. There are too many accents out there and everyone things theirs is legitimate, and it is ‘the accent.” But why not embrace that diversity and enjoy the beauty that comes with it. I can go on and on..but my point is ‘Enjoy who you are, life is too short to live in regret.’ We like the fact that you know who you are right now… you said, “I’m an African but… English is my first language.”

    Liked by 2 people

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