Understanding human needs for identity –
Picking up from my last blog on the children’s need to belong and looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is quite amazing at the same time not surprising to see that the need for “belonging” is right in the middle as the moment the basic needs (physiological (being born, food, water etc.) and safety (security / family) needs are met, the next thing a human being wants is to have their sense of belonging established as shown below:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs
It is important to point out here that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be used to interpret any aspect of human life as long as there is a new beginning like moving to a new place or changing job and so on).
For instance, the children mentioned in the previous blog had their sense of “social belonging” needs met when they chose to relate to the dominant social culture of where they were at the time but now that they have become adults and established and do not need to ‘socially belong’ anymore, their desire ‘to belong’ is no longer directed towards the prevailing ‘social’ culture but towards meeting an inner or ‘cultural’ need, a need to establish their cultural identity and satisfy their inner desire for a sense of cultural belonging.
Language: Cultural or social identity?
My own journey
Looking at the role of language in any context (without going too deep into sociological studies), it is obvious that language plays important role in establishing both cultural and social identities.
The issue around my own passion to encourage and see people, in this instance, the young adults of Nigerian Yoruba parentage learn to speak in their parents’ language, started unknowingly some years ago when I came to live in the UK.
Life before UK
Before then in the late 70’s and 80’s when I was a teenager / young adult in Nigeria, it was not “cool”, posh or ‘tush’ or ‘toosh’ (as the young people of today would say) to speak Yoruba language. Actually, we children around the time heard lots of “no vernacular” (meaning we were not to speak in our own language) within the school environment at that particular point in time, so in a way, Yoruba language was relegated and regarded as ‘second class citizen’s language right there in Nigeria!
It was rather accepted and regarded as “cool” for us to speak English language to the extent that some people were willing to do almost anything to prove their knowledge and understanding of English language by using unpopularly used or uncommon synonymous words which we popularly referred to as “big grammar” just so they can be applauded! (It’s good fun (sometimes) though!)
Socially acceptable norms
Popular and acceptable music among many young people and educated ‘class’ or ‘elite’ around the time were foreign music.
Artists like Michael Jackson, Cool and the Gang, Aretha Franklin and so on ruled the airwaves, parties and disco clubs in Nigeria (at least in the western part where I grew up) as people that considered themselves ‘cool’ did not associate as such with local and more traditional artists.
That was the way things were. And am afraid to say that many of us went along with it! We didn’t query anything.
In our own way, we were subconsciously trying to ‘belong’ as well to the “elite” class that our Nigerian society was creating.
Belonging? Who am I? Time to find out
And then, I came to the UK thinking I was alright as I communicated very well in English (in my opinion and that of many Nigerians.) But then living and working in the UK shed another light on my world and knowledge of English as their use of English and mine (and fellow Nigerians) were and are still so different. Many British found it hard to understand me and my fellow Nigerians and we also found it hard to understand them as well.
Identity crisis: Cultural and or social identity?
Language (as a cultural identity) and language (as social identity)
Can you imagine being at an interview and not fully understanding the questions been asked? Don’t laugh! It happened to me! Needless to say, I excused myself in the middle of the interview and went to the toilet (a perfect excuse just to talk to the person that took me to the interview that I could not understand the man’s intonation! (It was cockney! And I think the man too did it on purpose, Who knows!) Needless to say that I did not get the job!
I’m sure that many Nigerians that are now high flyers in the UK (and elsewhere like The USA, Canada and so on), if asked would have loads of stories to tell like mine!
Name – what’s in a name?
What about my name, a three lettered word “a-d-e” got various pronunciations! (edi, addi, eda etc. to mention a few). I made it a point to correct and I remember one person telling me that my name was strange and that was why it was difficult, to which I gave a reply that their own name would be found to be ‘strange’ as well if they were in my part of the world.
As you can see, many fellow Nigerians and I (and probably other Africans too) were under pressure to do something to “belong”.
How do you belong?
To meet this endless desire to ‘belong’, some people chose to ‘amend’ their intonation, some chose to use their English Names while some re-named themselves and started answering to English / Christian names like Chris, Sam, Kate, Judith, Monica and so on while some chose to waddle on and take their stance regarding their identity, neither did they add other names nor did they intentionally develop a funny accent.
May I say here that there were people from other parts of the world as well (Indians, Chinese, Ethiopians, Jamaicans and so on) who were also grappling with the same issues as us in their own way.) We all however adjusted and adapted here and there to ‘belong’ in our own way to the society just as much as our host country and citizens also tried and accepted us by trying to understand us a bit as well.
By the way and to my knowledge, at no time did any British ever tried to write their name phonetically so that I or anyone else could pronounce it. I mean imagine a Sean spelling his name ‘Shon or Shun’ for my or anyone’s benefit? No. That realisation helped me to quench any desire to spell my name ‘Addey’ (as some were trying to push me to) as I finally accepted me and who I am.
Belonging, fitting in, yet not fitting in…
From the above, you can sense that people went through a lot of emotional feelings and psychological issues in their bid to ‘belong’. These psychological issues range from inferiority complex to superiority complex while some tried to have a balanced view. All these psychological issues however reflected themselves in various behaviours with us all in different ways as individuals.
My own way of dealing with this emotional tussle at the time was to tell myself that I also was proficient in another language, Yoruba. This was when I noticed how some of my people were not speaking Yoruba to their children. I did not like what I observed then, so, I began my “one man (I mean woman) crusade”. It worked with some, others did not see it the way I did which was fair enough.
Accepting me (colour, language, intonation and all)
I tried and encouraged Nigerians especially the Yoruba parents around me to speak our language to their children. I reasoned that these children might not be able to write it or speak it fluently, but they should at least understand it so that when they eventually ‘go home’ (to their parents and their own cultural background) which so many do, no matter how long they have been away from their country of origin) or that whenever they are with fellow Nigerians anywhere, they would not feel like strangers! That was some years ago. My passion for this issue has not waned, no not yet!
We all struggle
As you can see, the parents (adults) also went through their own issues around the need to belong not to mention the fact that these parents (we Yoruba’s) came from a culture that embrace and pride themselves in speaking “Queens English”. The outcome of this is that so many parents did not notice or sense what was going on and before we know it, we now have almost a generation that struggles with speaking their own cultural language!
Nevertheless, as some are now keen to speak our language, my own response was and still is “Let’s help, let’s walk together” as nothing is ever too late and there is no time like now.
As you can see, there are issues on both sides (children and parents / adults) and I think it is important to revisit some of these issues which means finding out the reasons for our attitudes to our language and how best to address the issues so that these would not keep robbing us but make us better as we would be if we, with information consciously plan for a better future for generations to come.
Look out for part 3, where I plan to conclude on the issues with Nigerians in diaspora and Why is it important to speak my African (Yoruba) language even in diaspora.