It is often said that in face-to-face communications regarding emotions, the words we speak actually account for less than 10% of the message that we convey, while body language accounts for more than half of our message. Our tone of voice supposedly communicates the rest.
In all my years living in the UK, one of the most obvious things that has changed about me is the way I speak to non-Nigerians. In my first year I spoke with my nice broad Yoruba accent: words were given their full pronunciation, and so words like ‘duvet’ (pronounced ‘duvee’) were pronounced with the entire silent letters, much to the confusion of my new English friends and colleagues.
I only noticed how strange I must have sounded to these people when my own children started correcting my pronunciation and use of certain words. If I asked them what they ate at break time at school, they corrected me by saying they ate ‘dinner’ at ‘dinnertime’. If I said ‘switch the ‘teli’ off’’, I was promptly asked what a ‘teli’ was. Now I call it T.V. My son, a car enthusiast, burst into laughter when I saw a Peugeot on T.V and called it a ‘Pijo’ like my dad always called his Peugeot 504 salon car.
I didn’t realise that my accent and intonation had changed so much until one day when played back a message I left on a colleague’s voicemail. I was somewhat shocked at how I sounded. That wasn’t so my real accent, it sounded like a stranger!
They say your kids are your greatest critics. It is true. I learnt from them that some things just didn’t make sense in their world and even my vocabulary had to change. If I made them a hot cocoa drink at night I had to remember not to ask them to drink up their ‘Bournvita’. It took me a while before I stopped referring to McDonald’s restaurants as ‘Mr Biggs’ and all sausage rolls as ‘gala’.
I suppose majority of immigrants in a foreign country adopt the diet, mode of dress and even the accent of their new homes. It’s our way of blending in. After all, the saying does ask us to ‘do as the Romans do when in Rome’ so I guess my new English accent is okay. Or is it?
At work, I put on my english accent very effectively i.e. speak through the nose and roll my words like I’ve got hot food in my mouth. Seriously, it works, even if I do tend to stumble at times when pronouncing difficult words. As a teacher, your students have to understand you and I get into the zone when I am spewing out legal principles with an English accent.
However, it is always a relief to come home and speak Yoruba with my hubby. The kids also understand bits of Yoruba, especially words relating to school, food, homework, sleep and behaviour: arguably all the words they need to avoid my wrath whenever I start shouting at them in Yoruba. It is also very refreshing to meet a Yoruba-speaking person. I still think in Yoruba and I still catch myself saying things like ‘Where are you going to’ which is a direct interpretation of the same question in Yoruba.
What I don’t understand is why some Nigerians have so ‘Englishized’ themselves that they don’t know when to swallow the hot potatoes and talk as they normally would to fellow Nigerians.
I called a lady a couple of weeks ago to order some chin-chin and meat-pies for my friend’s party. When the said lady picked up the phone she sounded very English. I could understand that she didn’t know who was on the phone but she didn’t stop with her phony accent after I told her my name and what I wanted from her. When I told my hubby, he suggested that she might have lived in the UK all her life so the accent might not be fake. I was sure I heard the ‘h’ factor in her pronunciation which was predominant amongst us natives of Oyo/Osun so I was not convinced.
When I finally met the lady, I greeted her in yoruba but she responded in English (with the fake accent). As our conversation progressed I soon realised that she wasn’t going to speak in yoruba. She was also making grammatical mistakes in every sentence and I felt like saying to her ‘Sis, I beg leave all the bullets, you wan kill person? However, if my boarding school days taught me anything, it was never to upset a person who had access to your food. It was all I could do not to burst into laughter when she revealed that she had only been in the UK for a year. In fairness to my chin-chin lady though, she kept up the fake accent till I left.
People need to know when to be fake and when to be real. There is a time for everything. My Asian colleagues speak punjabi to each other when we meet outside work but many Nigerians will not speak their native language with fellow Nigerians. Speaking English with a clear-cut english accent is a form of communication, it doesn’t give you British citizenship. A person must be seriously insecure about their identity if they feel they must speak to their own kind in a fake accent.
For those Nigerians who refuse to speak their native language to other Nigerians, remember that anyone can speak English but not everyone can speak your native language. Be proud of it and don’t lose it to pretense.
Finally, if anyone from abroad comes home to Nigeria this Christmas and you catch them trying to speak in a fake English accent please tell them to swallow the hot potato in their mouth and get real!
BTW: The chin-chin and meatpies were lovely.
Writer – Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listening to her musings on everything.