Adrian Omotade-Tan didn’t want a language barrier between him and his young kids as they grew older.
It’s a real concern for the Edmonton father because although his mother is British and his father is Chinese Malaysian, he didn’t learn his dad’s heritage languages growing up in England.
“There were three dialects I think he speaks; Cantonese, Malay and Hokkien. I only heard him speak it probably when he called his mom,” says Omotade-Tan. “I know it’s just language … but that’s a part of me that I don’t really know.”
“He just said I wouldn’t have anyone to speak it with so I didn’t need to learn it.”
That experience is shaping the way Omotade-Tan and his wife, Funmi, raise their girls, aged four-weeks-old and three.
Before their first daughter was born, the couple agreed that she needed a connection with her diverse roots. Funmi was born in England, but the couple knew her Nigerian heritage was the closest cultural tie they had.
“We could have chosen names [for the girls] that weren’t Nigerian, but I can see the connection is so important for Funmi’s mom,” said Adrian. “So I thought, ‘let’s start learning the language, too.’ “
Tone is everything
On any given night at their dinner table, The Omotade-Tan family huddles around a smart phone, listening to daily words from the Instagram page Soroni Yoruba, which means “speak Yoruba.” As a native speaker herself, Funmi gently coaches her family on how to form the words to make the right sounds, which is crucial to ensure the right message is conveyed.
“I love you in Yoruba also sounds like ‘I love your meat’,” laughs Funmi. “Adrian has told me ‘I love your meat’ a couple of times.”
Yoruba is a tonal language, meaning words that look the same can have many different meanings based on the tone the speaker uses.
Adrian says this distinction in tone is the most difficult part, but he and his girls are gradually learning together.
I’m pretty surprised that I’m learning it, absorbing it and remembering it mostly.– Adrian Omotade-Tan
“It’s cool because I’m pretty old. Picking up a new language is difficult,” he says. “I’m pretty surprised that I’m learning it, absorbing it and remembering it mostly.”
“Sometimes I’ll say something wrong and my eldest daughter will look at me funny and say, ‘daddy, you’re silly,” he laughs. “She’s teaching me.”
Although Adrian has few cultural ties to his father’s heritage, the couple is keeping the diversity of their backgrounds alive by both legally hyphenating their last names to bring the Chinese Malaysian and Nigerian roots together.
Funmi says her husband’s effort to learn a new language later in life is strengthening the bonds her family shares.
“When he speaks [Yoruba] to my family it’s amazing because I know they appreciate it. They don’t expect it, but it’s just another way of him getting closer to the family” she says.