The importance of teaching children their native language



By Fatim Sillah

This week we decided to explore the importance of Africans abroad learning their native language. We have learned through many experiences that learning or retaining your native language, when you live in a country where the language isn’t being spoken is a challenge. This is common. However in the case of African languages many of them are unfortunately disappearing in the midst of globalization. Before globalization, colonization is another major factor as to why traditional African languages are being spoken less. The colonizer’s languages such as French, English, or Portuguese have been enforced in the educational system of many colonized countries, alienating the native languages completely. This is an issue that has been happening in Africa for years. Africans living abroad seem to be more aware of this issue, and therefore make it a point to learn or re-learn their native language, and even teach their children the language.

Meet Ciré Bah from Sweden. She was born in Guinea and moved to Sweden at a young age. We asked her some questions about the importance of knowing and speaking her native language. She shares her experience of almost losing her native language Fulani, and also the importance of passing Fulani on to her daughter.

Living in Sweden, how were you able to learn your native language? 


-I moved to Sweden when I was seven and very quickly learned Swedish, but unfortunately just as quickly forgot my native language Fulani. At the time, the focus was to learn Swedish to better follow and keep up with school, friends etc.  When I was 10, I had forgotten nearly all my Fulani. My rescue was when I went on summer vacation to Denmark, where I stayed with my aunties who spoke only Danish and Fulani. And because Fulani was more familiar than Danish to me at the time…voila! After two months of vacation, my dad was shocked how much of my Fulani I had recovered once home from my summer vacation. From there I maintained and developed my Fulani through frequently visiting family abroad. I was reunited with my mum at age 12 and my Fulani has been nearly perfect since (laugh).

Why is it important as an African to learn your native language?   


-I think it is extremely important since it is nearly impossible to comprehend a culture without understanding its language. Language is a direct reflection of culture. Therefore, to truthfully connect, explore and understand any given culture and its people, understanding the language is key.

You have a daughter, and she speaks fula. Why was it important for you to teach her Fula?   


-Primarily, I wanted to give her the same platform as I found myself standing on. By this I mean giving her the means to understand and benefit from the two cultures that God has gifted her with, the Nordic and the African culture, where she on one hand understands and values Nordic ideals, but on the other hand understands and cherishes her African and Fulani heritage and culture. That is the platform I find myself standing on today, and I would not trade it for anything in this world, because it is a truly unique platform that enables one to contrast the various aspects of life, professional and nonprofessional, in a very sensible and meaningful way. With that said, to directly answer the question, I understood that teaching her Fulani early on would be a key enabler to her true connection, understanding and participation in African heritage and its culture.

What are the best ways for someone to learn their native language, when living so far away?  


-The best way to learn a language I think is interacting and more precisely verbally communicating with people who have the language of interest as their 1st, or even preferably, as their only language. That way your only way of verbally communicating is through that language, eliminating any easy exit strategies. Though, beware that to motivate the communication to even take place, I found that the importance of the relationship between the people in question plays an important role.  Meaning that the quality and dynamics of the interaction will only be as strong as the relationship between the people is. For my daughter, this person used to be my grandmother, who recently passed away. My daughter was eager to talk to her, and since she only spoke Fula, she automatically started speaking Fulani with her. Note she would never speak Fulani to anyone else in the family, even when asked, because then she would take the easy exit by replying in Swedish. Another way has been that I encourage my daughter to speak to relatives back home.  So, when I am on the phone with family from back home, once they ask how she is doing, I will hand over the phone to her, so that she can engage in conversations with them, even if she often hands the phone back after very few sentences. Nevertheless, conversations that lasted less than a minute in the beginning have evolved into her running away from me with my phone. But it is probably worth mentioning that she already had the chance to build genuine relationships with my family back home, by physically meeting them on our trips to Guinea. Yes! I deliberately took her with me whenever I had the chance, for her to know and connect with her family, origin, and a totally different part of the world. Lastly, living in Sweden, my daughter and I keep Fulani as our secret language. She truly loves it when she can tell me something that only me and her understand when among other people.

We have dedicated two weeks to learn more and explore our beautiful African languages. We ask you to come with the best advice on how African languages can stay alive both in Africa and also abroad. If you are from the African diaspora, feel free to share your opinion and your experiences on this matter. We would love to hear from you. Participate in the conversation on our social media platforms on Instagram and Facebook.

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