Language and Excellence

By Joy Agwu

Agwu cover image

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

I first met my paternal grandparents the week before my eighth-grade graduation. They live in Nigeria, and my family and I live in America. Over the first fourteen years of my life, time conflicts and visa troubles on both sides repeatedly deterred the opportunity for us to meet; then everything came together for them to attend this celebration of academic excellence. I was so ecstatic to finally get to know them in person.

From my first encounter with them, I quickly noticed that their English was very slow and deliberate when they spoke. As a freshly graduated middle schooler with a world of wisdom, I astutely assumed that it was because they were old. Later in their visit, when I overheard them speaking in quick discussion with each other, I realized that my assumption was wrong. Observing them, laughing and discussing in quick rapport, I soon learned that my grandparents were fast-paced, humorous, and witty people…or, at least, they seemed to be. I could not know for sure, because the platform for this beautiful, almost miraculous shift in expression was a language I did not understand: Igbo, the language of their home.

The Igbo tribe of Nigeria is one of the country’s three major tribes, boasting almost twenty-million people and accounting for 20% of the nation’s population (McKenna). The tribe bears a rich, wonderful culture and is full of unique traditions, customs, attire, and art. Through my father’s side of the family, I am Igbo. As such, I enjoy listening to Naija music, know how to prepare Jollof rice, and feel a sense of pride when I see an Igbo victory in the news. I have a general awareness of the culture, and for years, this was enough to convince myself, and other Americans, of my heritage. However, after meeting my grandparents and listening to them speak in Igbo, my confidence in that fact shifted. Despite technically being Igbo, I could not fully connect with grandparents because I did not know the language. Was this my relationship with the tribetechnically a member, but restricted in my ability to truly connect?

In one of the more candid, one-on-one discussions I had with my grandparents, my grandmother asked me why I did not know Igbo. I froze. She did not ask it confrontationally, or even with a hint of disappointment. Her question was instead solely rooted in curiosity—why did I not know the language of my family, the language in which I could freely speak to them?

I was struck speechless for a moment. Eventually, I opened my mouth and gave her the best answer I could muster:

I don’t know.

In the years since, however, I have come to realize a better answer. As an Igbo child of the diaspora,[1] it is not entirely unexpected for me to not know the language. In the years since my grandparents’ visit, I have gone through dozens of group chats, YouTube videos, and blog posts where others have shared similar experiences. Through these platforms, I have become increasingly aware that my situation is not unique. It almost seems as if not learning Igbo has become a tradition of its own for many children of the diaspora. As more and more Igbos move out of Nigeria, it is an unfortunately common occurrence that Igbo immigrants do not foster their language in their households. Many times, if the children do learn the language, it is not until adulthood and through their own determined pursuit. When asked why they do not know the mother tongue, many diaspora-born Igbos are quick to point the finger at their Igbo parent or parents, and this behavior is not discouraged within Igbo society and conversation on the topic.

When referring to the tribe’s attitude towards their language, most characterize the act as resentment. Many subscribe to the idea that, as Igbos have immigrated and built roots in other Western cultures, we also built resentment towards our own background. One research paper even claims that such negativity “has been established” and as a result, Igbos living in the diaspora “prefer their children speaking English to speaking Igbo” (Asonye). Authors typically produce the claim without evidence, and most accept it as an explanation of Igbo behavior within the diaspora. However, while this claim is not entirely unfounded, it is not wholly accurate. While there may be individuals fostering negativity towards the Igbo language, I believe it is the tribe’s nature that lies at the heart of this trend—particularly regarding our drive towards excellence. In order to achieve, Igbos must set priorities in line with their new homes in the diaspora. Unfortunately, the mother tongue does not always make the cut. With this understanding, our objective should not be to change the nature that prompts this trend, but to utilize it in a concerted effort to revive the Igbo language.

While I do not know the language, I realize that I am well-acquainted with the tribe’s nature of excellence. Growing up, I was not the strongest at school. If anything, I was an average student and struggled at times. However, the moments when I did well on an assignment are ingrained in my memory for two reasons: first, the feeling of achievement, and second, my father’s reaction. I have distinct memories of showing my father various tests, assignments, and report cards, and the interaction typically followed similar, if not the same lines:

Daddy, Daddy, look! I got an A!

Of course you did, princess. A is for Agwu, after all.

My dad would repeat some rendition of this axiom whenever I shared my best grades with him. Four little words—A is for Agwu—but the message there was clear: We are the best. We excel in all that we do.

As I look back, I can tell that this mindset accurately reflects his Igbo upbringing and the general culture fostered within the tribe. The message could also present some fuzziness, though. Does one excel because they are Igbo? Or is one Igbo because they excel?

The general consensus is: if you are doing it right, you should not have to ask.

The Igbo standard of excellence is primarily represented in business and academic achievement. In the United States, Nigerians make up the most educated ethnic group, with 61.4% of their population bearing a bachelor’s degree or higher (Ogunwole, Battle and Cohen). Based on my own experience, with most of my paternal relatives boasting multiple degrees, I am sure that Igbos make up a considerable percentage of this number. The tribe values excellence, and such is their reputation. Within Nigeria, a well-known Igbo stereotype is that we are all businesspeople, industrious, and constantly on the lookout for advancement and success (Agwu; Ogunfowoke). While the image does have its negative connotations, I believe there is some truth to this statement. As a people, we are not in the habit of doing things halfway, and it shows. While we may not all venture into business—I, for one, have very little interest in the field—we are brought up with industrious, resilient spirits and are encouraged to achieve. Igbo immigrants branch out into the world, bearing a desire to create roots and excel in their new environment. This excellence not only requires adapting to the language of the land but mastering all of its avenues for success.

A common explanation Igbo immigrants provide for not teaching their children the Igbo language is because, as they transition from Nigeria to another country, they do not see it as a priority. Regardless of origin, in a new country, it is not uncommon for immigrant parents to prioritize creating firm roots over passing on a language not spoken in their new location (Kheirkhah). The Igbo diaspora community is no different in this regard. In fact, they direct even more time and emphasis to this step. In their efforts to build a solid foundation in the diaspora, parents may set aside teaching their children Igbo in favor of establishing roots in their new environment. However, as time goes by, the perfect circumstances to educate their children pass as well; then the children reach adulthood, and it feels too late. The pull of building a successful foreign life repeatedly triumphs over the desire to pass on the Igbo language, but this decision is not made in resentment towards the language. Rather, it is them adhering to another aspect of their Igbo identity.

The Igbo culture of excellence further explains why the “settling in” process can be so detrimental to passing on the Igbo tongue to their diaspora-born children. In their desire to excel in this new country, they want to set up their child for the same goal. A common concern amongst Igbo parents is how learning Igbo at home will affect their children’s ability to learn English at school. “[My parents] wanted me to speak good English and they didn’t want me to go through the same struggles that they went through,” one young man shared in a YouTube video, explaining why his parents did not teach him Igbo (Okwu ID). While being bilingual may offer benefits in the long run, there are difficulties associated with learning both English and a tribal language in childhood. In Maryland, my home state, if a child is identified as an English Learner, they are supposed to receive accommodations so they may still be able to follow in a classroom (“English Learners”). However, this is far more difficult with a tribal tongue, because translators are not as accessible. As this is not an ideal, or even guaranteed, circumstance, most Igbo parents find themselves deferring from it entirely. This is what happened in my own experience.

In an interview, my father described his decision to not teach me Igbo as providing the “best option” for me; he wanted me to thrive here, first, “and here, the language is English” (Agwu). By electing to not teach their youth their mother tongue, Igbo immigrants are not displaying resentment towards the language. Rather, they are recognizing the trends of the land, and equipping children with what they believe to be the best tools for success. While the intention here is noble, and evidently provides stellar results, it also has detrimental effects.

If you posed the question of what makes a person Igbo, language or excellence, Nigeria-born Igbos might boastingly answer with excellence, whereas their diaspora-born youth might be more inclined to answer with language. For the diaspora-born Igbos who do not know the mother tongue, there is often an inner struggle of identity. This is displayed by how often these youths express an intense desire to learn the mother tongue later on in their lives. Objectively, one could understand why familial aspirations eclipsed this area of education, but there is still a sense of identity missed. One young man shares that, as much as he appreciates his parent’s intention in not teaching him Igbo, “in hindsight, [he feels] like it’s a barrier” (Okwu ID). In this trend of choosing excellence over language, diaspora-born Igbos receive what has been deemed the more valuable aspect of our culture—but it is still only a portion of a whole. We may be excellent scholars, businesspeople, and working members of society, but we are still missing a piece of our identity. Without the language, diaspora Igbos are prevented from fully connecting with their heritage and other natives of the tribe. It feels as if there is a whole part of the culture that we cannot access, and the key to unlocking it was taken from us years ago. A culture is not solely defined by its means of expression, but the two are undoubtedly connected.

As more and more Igbos leave Nigeria for other countries, I implore them to cease leaving the Igbo language behind as well—if not for the cultural identity of their children, then for the sake of their tribe. In 2006, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization shared that the Igbo language was in danger of going extinct by the year 2050, if preventative action is not taken (Asonye). Decades of not passing down the Igbo language has finally shown its wear on the mother tongue, and now we must correct it. I urge the tribe to utilize its thirst for excellence and redirect some of that energy towards the revival of the Igbo language. We are a tribe that strives for success, and I strongly believe that this mindset can be applied to any challenge.

Migrational circumstances may never change, and the language of a new location may always pose as a more convenient tool for success. However, that does not mean we must continue to compromise one factor of our identity for another. It is time that Igbo immigrants stopped treating excellence and language as two competing cultural aspects, but rather as two equal parts of Igbo identity. As a child of the diaspora, I am grateful to my father for his intentions, but I now urge future Igbo immigrants to do better. Teach us the language of Igboland. While it may create a few challenges in our international upbringing, it will be invaluable for our Igbo identity. We do not excel because circumstances are always easy; we excel because we are an industrious, striving people.

We excel because we are Igbo.
Because we are Igbo, we will save our language.

[1] In this case, anywhere outside of Nigeria or Igboland.