IN my early years, I grew up in a bilingual environment. At home, my parents often conversed with me in Bambara, their native language.

Bambara is spoken in West Africa, especially in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. It is a language intertwined with everyday life, stories and traditions, linking millions to their cultural roots.

However, a significant change unfolded when I started formal education and entered nursery school at three years old: Bambara began to slip away from my world. This shift wasn’t of my own accord, obviously, but was influenced by my teachers, who undoubtedly meant well.

Their concern was that learning two languages might confuse me, especially at such a young age. They feared mixing languages could hinder my mastery of French, the dominant language. Consequently, Bambara became less prevalent in my home. My parents reserved it for conversations my siblings and I couldn’t understand.

Sadly, this shift had far-reaching consequences beyond language.

The fading of Bambara also meant losing a vital piece of my heritage and identity. The ability to communicate effortlessly with extended family, to share stories and a sense of belonging, diminished. This change eroded a cultural bridge that once connected me to a vibrant heritage and the people who embodied it.

To compound matters, certain family members found it amusing to make jokes about my inability to speak their language.

This persistent teasing, often couched as harmless banter, took a toll. Hearing these jokes repeatedly felt like a ritual of group humiliation, undermining my confidence. This constant jesting deepened pre-existing feelings of inadequacy, creating a painful paradox – the individuals who should have supported me contributed to my sense of shame.

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Losing Bambara wasn’t something I actively pursued or willingly embraced. Instead, it resulted from a world that failed to appreciate the richness of linguistic diversity, particularly in African languages. Growing up in an environment with minimal diversity and a focus on conformity, the desire to fit in overshadowed preserving cultural heritage.

Who could blame me?

Given the racism I frequently encountered in my school environment, the desire to assimilate was only natural. The blatant bigotry I faced amplified the urge to mute the aspects of myself that stood out. In such a context, speaking an African language became an additional marker of difference, attracting severe discrimination.

I couldn’t change my name, my hair or the colour of my skin, but I sure could sound like the Frenchest kid.

Bilingualism is shrouded in misunderstanding.

Contrary to popular belief, monolingualism is anything but the standard worldwide. It constitutes a minority feature in the world. Perhaps if my educators had recognised this, I wouldn’t be writing this column.

While it might be more prevalent in Western countries, many regions of the world thrive on linguistic diversity and multilingualism. It is common to find people fluent in several African languages.

For instance, it is not unusual to encounter someone proficient in both Bambara and Wolof.

It is also a common misconception that speaking two languages could put children at a disadvantage, causing confusion and hindering their linguistic growth. But research paints a different picture. Children are surprisingly skilled at recognising the boundaries between languages and navigating between linguistic worlds.

I see this every day with my child. At home and with our families, we converse in French, building a strong foundation in the language. Regular interactions with extended family ensure our child maintains a deep connection to his heritage and consistent exposure to the language.

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To further enrich his bilingual path, we have cultivated a close-knit community of families, each with at least one francophone parent, living here in Scotland.

This circle provides a haven for our children to engage and interact in French, creating a natural, comfortable and fun environment for language exchange.

The primary aim of this group is to ensure that children experience language learning without any stress and instead embrace the positivity of acquiring an additional language.

Instead of a tangled mix of languages, our child showcases an excellent mastery of both English and French – I mean, excellent for a two-year-old! There is no bizarre fusion of Frenglish in our household; rather, a seamless transition between languages.

The only instance of amusing mixing we have observed is when he excitedly says “on lit le book” (let’s read a book), which never fails to make us laugh.

I appreciate that my child’s experience will likely differ from my own

With French as his heritage language, he won’t encounter the same struggle I faced due to the more positive representations of French compared to other languages. However, even within Western languages, the spectre of shame and inadequacy can cast its shadow upon children.

A while ago, when I was a student, I provided private English lessons to an 11-year-old boy. Despite having an English-speaking mother, he struggled with the language and felt like a failure.

The weight of everyone’s expectations, assuming he should excel in English due to his anglophone parent, created an environment of undue pressure that made learning English an uphill battle.

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The lingering sense of shame that gnawed at me regarding my heritage language was a feeling I struggled to articulate for a very long time, unable to pinpoint precisely why not speaking my parents’ language felt like a weight on my shoulders.

Throughout my life, I carried the notion that there was something inherently wrong with me, a belief that I bore the weight of my language loss as a personal failure. I often found myself grappling with the distressing question of why I couldn’t preserve my parents’ language.

The isolation I felt was profound – a conviction that I was alone in this.

In reality, my experience is far from unique

Many children of immigrants find themselves grappling with the same sense of disconnect. The prevailing trends of assimilation often lead to the dilution of languages once passed down from generation to generation.

The reasons behind my language loss weren’t confined to mere happenstance. Rather, a complex interplay of historical factors and societal currents wove together to create the circumstances that led to the fading of my heritage tongue.

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This perspective didn’t absolve my feelings of loss, but it did help contextualise my journey within a larger narrative and make the jokes and the mockery about not speaking my parents’ tongue a little bit easier to take.

This sense of linguistic loss is not exclusive to children of immigrants.

I discovered a parallel journey through my exploration of the evolution of the Gaelic language for an article I did for Radio France Internationale’s website a few years ago.

The revelation that languages don’t simply fade away by chance, but are influenced by societal pressures and historical dynamics, struck a deep chord within me.

The pressure on parents not to pass on Gaelic to their children, the subsequent pressure on those children to avoid speaking it, and the lack of opportunities to practice it, mirrored the dynamics I encountered in my own upbringing.

The negative representations of the language, fuelled by societal prejudices, further contributed to its decline.