It’s no secret, African immigrants living in the West have a hard time passing on their native languages to their children. As a parent, I can attest that the struggle is real. Despite good intentions, and even some arduous efforts, my kids speak neither Swahili nor my mother tongue language. Even within my social circles among African immigrants, I only know a handful of families where the kids understand the parent’s native languages. In such instances, the kids may not fully express themselves in the African language, but they can at least exchange basic pleasantries.
Perhaps I have lowered the bar too low based on my under-accomplishment, but I am in awe when I come across African immigrant families where the kids can speak their parents’ native language. As I approach my empty-nester days, I am slowly coming to terms with my failure in the language inheritance struggle but the question remains, why is it so difficult for African immigrants living in Western countries to pass on their native language to their offspring?
Looking around the immigrant universe within my locality, I find that Asians and Latinos are pretty good at raising their kids to speak their parent’s mother tongue. Koreans and Chinese do an admirable job with their kids when it comes to language inheritance. French and Italian native speakers also do a decent job. In the US, Spanish is an official language and about 13 percent of the population speak Espanol, making the US the second largest population of Spanish speakers in the world after Mexico. Considering this backdrop and given the proximity of a vast Spanish-speaking region in central and southern America, it’s no surprise that Latino kids embrace Spanish more than other language groups.
Among African immigrants, there is limited data on the proportions that speak native languages. However, a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that between 2016 and 2018, African languages including Swahili, Yoruba, Twi, Igbo, Amharic, and Somali were among the fastest-growing languages spoken at home in the US. This corresponds with trends showing steady growth in the population of African immigrants in the US. While immigrants may speak native languages, their offspring are often less likely to adopt their parents’ language skills and it is worth exploring why.
Why it Matters
Before I lay out my hypotheses on why African immigrants are losing the language inheritance struggle with their kids, let’s start by considering why this is important. For one, language is an important part of any culture. Speaking a language engenders a strong cultural identity and provides a basis for appreciating one’s own heritage. Speaking other languages boosts brain function, especially among children. If there is a possibility for a child to learn a second language, this can be a tremendous advantage for the child’s learning capacity.
Speaking their parents’ native language also helps forge stronger connections between neo-African diaspora kids and their relatives in the motherland. It particularly comes in handy when grandparents or others not as fluent in the local lingua franca, visit with family in the West. It provides kids with options for inner-circle communication among family and underpins pride in their immigrant heritage.
Among the most significant barriers to successful language inheritance among neo-African diasporans is lack of exposure. Kids can only learn a language if it is frequently used within their household. Unfortunately, most parents often speak the lingua franca at home by default, as an unconscious habit but also as the easiest mode for instructing their kids. This is more likely to happen if the parents lack a common African language, for example, if they are from different tribes. In my experience, it takes a great deal of effort and intentionality to stick to your native language while communicating to each other as parents—we are simply too used to defaulting to the Western lingua franca.
Back & Forth
There are also situations where parents speak multiple languages and end up switching back and forth between them, making it difficult for kids to establish a pattern. Teaching kids a native African language requires commitment from both parents. Parents have to be on the same page about the need for and process of passing on language skills to their kids. With the busy lives, we have in the West, the commitment waivers and so do the opportunities for kids to learn.
Not all parents want their kids to learn their native language. Some parents fear that it will hold back their kids from learning the lingua franca which would put them at a disadvantage in academic performance. There is little evidence to support this line of reasoning but it still remains a common fear among immigrant parents. Others may be concerned that their kids will adopt an accent and hence sound less “American or British” for example. Parents may be relating this to their own experience trying to fit in as immigrants.
Due to racism and anti-blackness, being African is not always cool. In certain spaces, being seen as African comes with stigma due to negative (and unfortunate) stereotypes about the beautiful continent. Kids may avoid speaking an African language if they feel it will expose them as outsiders. This can lead to a lack of interest in learning their parents’ native language, it becomes a disincentive.
Lack of accessible literature and formal learning opportunities also serves as a hindrance. In a foreign land, kids cannot rely fully on their parents to teach them an African language especially if the parents are often not home or have little time to interact with their children. I was once a part of a Swahili class for neo-African diaspora kids here in the US and although it was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a praiseworthy effort. I saw kids who had little to no command of Swahili coming in enjoy learning the language together in a fun environment. Unfortunately, such opportunities are few and far in between. We definitely could use more African language training schools and teachers.
Time in Africa
Though it is difficult, there are some enablers to help neo-African diaspora kids pick up their parents’ native language. Spending time in Africa is the best way to learn an African language. Many kids have been able to pick up a little bit of their parent’s native language by visiting the motherland over the summer. A few months in Africa can do wonders for children, not only in terms of language skills but also for adopting cultural values.
Grandparents to the Rescue
Another effective way for kids to learn their parents’ native language is to have their grandparents visit and spend time with the kids. As the African immigrant community establishes in the West, it is becoming more common for grandparents to visit. There is nothing grandparents love more than spending time with their grandkids and it sweetens the deal when they can help them learn about their roots. Visiting grandparents are also more likely to consistently speak an unadulterated form of African languages, in some cases, they even help parents improve their own native language skills.
Keep at it
Even though I have been unsuccessful in helping my kids speak Swahili, I would still encourage other African immigrants to keep at it. There is a good proportion of parents who are doing an excellent job helping their kids even though the results may not be evident while they are still young. It should be noted that kids who were born in Africa and moved here in their later childhood often tend to retain their native language but this also requires encouragement and support from their parents and their immigrant community.
I can only speak about Swahili but my sense is that certain tribes may be better at passing on their native language to their children. I would love to hear what experience other neo-African diasporans have. We need more research on the dynamics and factors influencing language inheritance among African immigrants in the West as we seek to leverage the benefits of bi-culturalism.
As usual, our goal here at Neo African Diaspora is to engage African immigrants in the West and their stakeholders to join the conversation as we script our journey. We would love to hear your views on this topic.
- Why is it important for African immigrants to pass on their native language to their children?
- What factors do you think make it difficult?
- Have you seen any successes and what factors contributed to the success?
- What should African immigrant parents do to help their children inherit the mother tongue?
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