Sometimes I wish I had a better ear for languages like my mother does. Not only is she a polyglot, she had the ability to gather context, tone, understanding and react even to languages she has heard only once.
At least, languages she seriously puts her mind to, she masters, however, she said of her German language experience whilst studying in the UK, they all made fun of both the teacher and the language that they gained nothing from the class apart from snippets for derision or laughter.
Then again, my father related an incident where they were looking for a home in the UK, the landlord then started a side conversation with his partner in a language they did not understand, it was one of the Ghanaian languages, enough for my mother to respond first to their unfriendly banter, their tendency to price gouge as my parents made their excuses to leave.
She relayed a story to me about walking up a 1960s London street with a relative when they encountered a sluggish old man and the relative quipped in Yoruba that the craggy old man should move out of the way. To their shock and bewilderment, the old English man responded in accent-perfect Yoruba, that they were craggy spoilt kids.
It transpired that the man had lived in Lagos for 25 years, this experience informed my mother’s decision never to assume she will never be remotely understood, regardless of where and when. I have always taken that lesson to heart.
So, imagine my surprise when having had our puppy rescued from the backyard well by the Lagos State Fire Brigade, we called in the carpenters at the top of our street to construct a protective covering over the well. My mother was quite particular about what she wanted done as the carpenters cussed under their breath that they had never had to deal with such a demanding customer in Igbo.
She responded in fluent Igbo and a dialect I soon found the Igbo-speaking teachers in her school where she was principal did not speak. Now, I know my mother grew up in Northern Nigeria, she could well pass for a Hausa woman, she had never visited anywhere to the South-East of Nigeria to my knowledge, at least until a few years after this event when she attended conferences, where did she learn her Igbo from? That was a mystery.
Meanwhile, my father attended every Hausa class and lecture he could find when we lived in the North of Nigeria in the early 1970s and could barely muster a few sentences. His attempts at Pidgin English were comedic at best. My aunt’s first numbers in Hausa have constantly been the stuff of jokes, and suffice it to say that almost 13 years of sojourn in The Netherlands never brought me close to mastering Dutch to any proficiency beyond the rudimentary, yet, I could read enough and speak enough to get by if I had to.
I encountered a man on crutches in a lift at Euston Station who was having a conversation on his hands-free phone, it was in Hausa and there I was with Hausa I had learnt as a pre-teen over 40 years ago having a conversation in a language I rarely get to use except on Twitter or on the rare occasion of meeting office cleaners from Ghana in Holland over 10 years ago.
I am always fascinated by languages and I guess if I were a parent in The Netherlands, I probably would have had no other choice than to immerse myself in the greater society of my children, rather than live as an Englishman abroad. The pillow talk, as far as I could remember, was always in English.
Languages still matter a great deal, even if it just starts with the greetings, the numbers and the basic phrases.