In a Trump era, it is not surprising to see why immigrant parents would be reluctant to teach their children their native language. A country once commonly referred to as the ‘Land of Immigrants’, the rhetoric of hate and xenophobia surrounding the Trump Administration has demonized the diverse cultures and languages that immigrants have brought to this country.
Growing up in New York City meant that most of my friends had immigrant parents just like me. But there were also a few of them whose parents never spoke to them in their native language. Why? The reasons vary. One friend confided in me that their Ethiopian mother wanted them to assimilate as much as possible, which meant there was little to no Amharic spoken in their household.
My Ivorian mother, on the other hand, spoke to me in English and French but not her native Bambara. But who could blame her? To try and teach me a third language on top of being a single mom would have required far more free time than she had on her plate. So, she taught me what she thought would be more useful; after all, French IS the official language of many West African nations.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say there is a part of me that detests the fact that one of my only connections to back home is knowing the language of our colonizers. I envy children of African immigrants who can proudly speak their parents native language that isn’t English or French. In the quest for identity among many of us within the African diaspora, language is culture. And when coming across other children of African immigrant parents, I have always sensed a lurking feeling that I must overcompensate and prove my African-ness in other ways because of the fact that I don’t speak nor understand Bambara.
Which is why I think all African immigrant parents should put in effort to teach their children their native African language. It is definitely much harder for me to try and learn Bambara as an adult, and I crave and envy the ease at which children can naturally pick up languages. Although you might not think it will be useful for them to use in the outside world here in the U.S. or even Europe, your children will grow up to thank you for keeping them connected to their culture and ethnicity. Let’s not forget that spreading our native languages from back home is just one but absolutely necessary component to preserving our culture and identity as a community abroad.