I was born in the heart of Freetown to parents whose mother tongue is Krio. However, when I was eighteen months old, my family moved to London, England. Although Krio was the primary language in our home, my earliest recollections are of me understanding but not speaking the language during my formative years in London. Perhaps this was because my attempts at speaking Krio were often mocked.
At eight years old, a girl addressed me in Krio on my second day of elementary school back in Freetown. I understood her perfectly but responded in English, which I assumed she understood since this was the language in which our teacher communicated with the class. It immediately became clear that this assumption was questionable. The girl stared at me, incredulous for a moment, then suddenly asked:
Wet ba, omos yia yu ol? (Hey, wait, how old are you?)
Na im yu no sabi tok te naw? (How come at your age you still can’t speak?)
I can speak. You just don’t understand me.
She then turned to a group of classmates a few feet away and exclaimed in a loud voice.
Dis borbor ya ol et yia bot i no sabi tok. Kam yeri. Na soso jobojaba i de tok! (This boy is eight years old, but he can’t speak. He only speaks gibberish!)
Unable to think of a suitable response, I stood silently staring at my shoes, feeling humiliated. My silence confirmed to those around us that I was indeed incapable of intelligible speech, and once this was established, I was ostracized.
At home, after school, I spent hours reflecting on this situation and eventually resolved to do all I could to overcome my lack of confidence in speaking Krio. From that moment on, I was on the road to becoming a linguist. I paid particular attention to pronunciation and intonation since I was confident that I already had a good grasp of the language’s grammar, idioms, and most other aspects. I was careful to drop the h and change the first vowel in an English word like ‘hungry’ and capture the essential quality of Krio’s enigmatic r. Articulated further back in the mouth than those found in most languages, I came to view the Krio r as a shibboleth distinguishing native from nonnative speakers of the language. In a short while, my ostracization was over. I felt my assimilation was complete, but my fascination with the language never ceased.
I would acquire graduate degrees in Linguistics, study English-based pidgin and creole languages, including Krio, and eke out a career as a linguist. Through all this, Krio has always been the primary language spoken in my home.
A few years ago, I was invited by an association of Krio people, most of whom lived in the diaspora, to speak at an annual celebration of Krio history and culture. I planned to talk about why children raised by Krio parents in the diaspora must be encouraged to take pride in speaking the language.
After an impressive introduction by two members, I began,
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honor for me to . . .”
but I was interrupted by a heckler.
Tok na Krio! (Speak in Krio!)
“. . . speak to you tonight . . .” I continued
Tok Krio! (Speak Krio!)
Another voice insisted.
So, I obliged. My talk was well-received in the end and, since then, I have spoken to various groups interested in celebrating the Krio people’s history and culture. Whenever invited to do this, I am always filled with immense pride at being embraced as a native speaker of Krio and a student of the language.
Then one day, a few months ago, one resident of Sierra Leone called my status as a native speaker and expert on Krio into question. When asked for his opinion of a recording I had made in Krio, he responded helpfully,
Wochi yu de chok sho, noto sho wi de chok di Krio naw o. (The way you speak is not how we speak the Krio language now.)
The rolled r in his pronunciation of the word ‘Krio’ was markedly different from the r, one of the hallmarks of most native Krio speakers’ pronunciation. The same was true of his pronunciation of the s and t sounds.
The confidence with which this man dismissed my ability to speak the language like a native brought me full circle to that moment when my classmate declared I was incapable of producing intelligible speech.
As I write this, I am wondering, if not Krio, what is my mother tongue?
Jerry Cline-Bailey was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he spent most of this youth. He is a graduate of Fourah Bay College, Durham University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is married and the father of two grown children.