Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Tongue Tied – Do you speak your mother’s tongue?

By Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí

As part of our Virtual Language Fest in celebration of International Mother Language Day on 21 February, Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí tells us about her experiences recording a podcast episode enquiring after people’s mother tongues. Her podcast episode forms part of a series of podcasts produced by SOAS World Languages Institute to celebrate UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019.

Producing this podcast episode was a lot of fun and, despite a few of my cringeworthy moments, I’m happy with how it turned out, except of course that I didn’t introduce myself! My name is Kúnmi (or Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí); a British-born Londoner of Yorùbá heritage, a wandering explorer, an English language teacher, a researcher, a curious linguaphile and soon to be a graduate of the MA Linguistics programme at SOAS. Through a combination of professional, academic and personal curiosity I embarked on a mission to understand why some of us don’t speak our mother’s tongue.

Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí at SOAS radio
Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí recording at SOAS Radio

Using a grammatical sleight of hand I often refer to the language(s) we have grown up with as our mother’s tongue (and father’s of course) because it is invariably the language that our parents and family members speak natively but which has not been transmitted to some of us in the same way. I never felt I could really claim Yoruba as a mother tongue because, despite it being spoken to me at home and understanding it well enough, I have never been able to hold a conversation beyond a few fossilised phrases.

When I started to speak other languages and noticed that foreign words would more easily roll off my tongue, I began to question why this had not been the case with my language. The more I looked around, asked questions and read, the more I discovered that this phenomena was not uncommon, the big question being why were we all so tongue tied? I was especially interested in the stories of those of us with African backgrounds because there is a sense that our generation of British-Nigerians, British-Ghanians and British-Zimbabweans etc have ‘lost’ our language in a way that some of our culturally hyphenated counterparts from other continents have not.

So, I put a call out for participants to have a chat with me on their thoughts and experiences with the languages in their lives and I received a lot of positive responses – just goes to show that everyone always has something to say about language!

Yẹwá Ògúnṣẹ̀yẹ was interviewed by Kúnmi for her podcast
One of Kúnmi’s interviewees, Yẹwá Ògúnṣẹ̀yẹ: “My family’s language is an important part of who I am, I just wish I’d become connected to it earlier in life.”

People from various countries and with different backgrounds had experiences that were in some ways very familiar, yet at the same time quite distinct. I was excited at the prospect of having a plethora of voices, languages and experiences represented in the discussion. However, as is often the case, practical constraints meant that not everyone who expressed an interest was able to participate on the day of recording.

Nevertheless, what I learned in the studio that evening, from the four others sat around the mics, reframed a lot of my thinking on how language is personally related to concepts of culture, identity, notions of power and a sense of belonging and connection that we all year for. Regardless of differences in definitions of mother tongue there is typically always a distinction made between a language that one uses by virtue or circumstance and environment, and one to which there is a personal connection.

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