Why We Refuse To Speak Yoruba


Beautiful people, I have a confession to make.

The obvious is that I can’t speak Yoruba. Now, the occasional trendy pidgin phrases like “Ko le work” and “Naija no dey carry last” has slipped out of my mouth a few times, along with the basics like “Ekaaro” and “Omi” to name a few. But when I need to reply in Yoruba to the JJC (Johnny Just Come) who is wittily trying to test my Yoruba aptitude for baseless comparisons, I freeze up and the words get stuck in my throat. I mean, I can understand what they’re saying, for the most part, except that Ondo dialect that no one really understands except Ondonites, but to give an eloquent reply like a learned Nigerian is a challenge.

I don’t know what it is! One may question, how I can understand Yoruba but can’t speak. Another may even question how I can read Yoruba, and still can’t speak it. Even Yoruba speaking illiterates, don’t have that skill set. To be honest, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a bit ashamed of my predicament. I study Latino-Americans and admire their effortless flow of Spanish to English and English to Spanish without hesitation or fear. Without the fear of sounding awkward, without the fear of being teased by people who were never patient enough to teach you, without the fear of not sounding authentic. Regardless of what generation, first-generation or second, it seems like they’re language is still embedded in their immigrant American stories.

I have a cousin that grew up in Nigeria until she was like 10 and spoke Yoruba fluently. When she moved to the States, she assimilated and lost the ability to speak Yoruba, because speaking it at home wasn’t emphasized as opposed to English. But when I delved deeper, she confessed that she just hasn’t tried to continue to speak her native tongue. And now when she tries, she feels like she sounds like she’s trying.

Her awareness gave me an epiphany. Our psychological trauma of not feeling authentic continues to prevent us from taking the leap to speak a language that has been embedded in our culture in a way that affords us the opportunity to master it. Yet we don’t. Simply put, we fail to speak because of lack of confidence. In order for us to start speaking the language we needed to accept our identities as cultural hybrids and move past the shame and accept the responsibility of being immersed in two different dominant cultures competing with one another.

It’s okay that we aren’t there yet, because the same responsibility we incurred as hybrids is shared by those that mock us every time we try; by the parents who didn’t enforce our native tongues until we were old enough to know that it should have been, by the aunties and uncles that speak to us in Yoruba and accept an English response as the status quo, and by those who “high key” judge without understanding our cultural perspectives and offering to teach. I’m okay with who I have become, while striving to be better so that my kids, the next generation, can learn not to refuse.

Your turn: Why don’t you speak your native tongue?

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  • Reply Tobi

    Great post, Bisola! I believe the phrase is “Ko Le Work” lol. I’m in the same boat as you but I refuse to stay stuck there. Over the years, I’ve forced myself to watch Naija movies where they are actually speaking my language. I figured that I should make up for what my parents didn’t do. It has helped me tremendously. 🙂

    September 18, 2017 at 4:45 PM
    • Reply Bisola

      Thanks Tobi for the correction! I’m trying sha. lol. I couldn’t stand Naija movies at first, the predictable storylines and the 3 part series got to me, but Nollywood has definitely improved. I wrote a post about great African films on Netflix. Take a look and let me know what you think.

      September 25, 2017 at 5:52 PM
      • Reply Tobi

        Hi Bisola! Definitely going to check those movies out. I never realized how many African storylines there were on Netflix. I had watched “Mother of George” a few years back and never thought to check for others. Thanks for the recommendations! 🙂

        October 20, 2017 at 9:28 AM

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