Saskatoon couple offers immigrant parents advice on transferring culture to kids

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Growing up in Nigeria, Soji and Titi Oyenuga were fully immersed and engaged in their language and culture.
After relocating from the west African country to Saskatchewan a decade ago, the couple knew they wanted to transfer those vital aspects of their heritage and upbringing to their daughter, Oreoluwa, 8, nicknamed Ore. Trouble was, they didn't quite know how and where to start.
"She's getting English everywhere outside home, and she comes home and she's speaking English to us, (so) we just start automatically speaking English," recalled Soji. "We lacked the techniques, the how-to, the discipline and the consistency to make it 'our language only' policy in our house because now our language is only going to be a second language to her."
"When we were growing up, we got our language, our culture, our ethics, our mannerisms consciously as the first one, so we're not equipped as parents to pass it across to her as second."
After organizing a seminar and receiving feedback from other immigrant parents from various backgrounds, the Saskatoon couple realized they weren't alone in their struggle.
"There and then, they made us realize that they would like to see something that would equip the parents, that would empower the parents on how to pass their culture, their language, their mannerisms, their ethics to the children in a creative, fun and easy way," said Soji.
In "101 Amazing Tips for Immigrant Parents," the Oyenugas self-published an audio book which offers suggestions for parents on strategies they can use to facilitate learning.
Soji, who was on the board of directors of the Saskatchewan Intercultural Association, said a common barrier is parental concern that the children would somehow be at a disadvantage by learning their heritage language.
"When the new immigrants get here, they think - and I don't know how it gets into our minds sometimes - that if our children are learning our own language, that it's going to confuse them at school and it's going to make them fall behind academically. But that is not true," said Soji.
"When we're digging into the research, we realize that the psychologists even say that if a child can learn more than one language, it helps them with child development cognitively."
Titi Oyenuga said as parents, they also felt it important not to make teaching heritage, culture and values very rigid or structured, but rather "to make use of all those teachable moments."
That could include repeating what a child says in English in your language, or having them in the kitchen to help prepare a traditional meal to help transfer culture in a fun way, she said.
"What we're trying to encourage immigrant parents (to do) ... is not to say, `I can't do this.' Yes, we can. We can use all those little, little times," she said.
"Use the common things that bond parents and kids together," she added. "When we take them to school, (we) tell them about things that happened to us when we were young in a funny way and in an interesting way. Telling them some of those things they're understanding our culture, how it's different from what they're exposed to here."
The family also sets aside time on Fridays to watch Nigerian movies. Some are in English, while others are subtitled films in their native language of Yoruba.
Soji said they also thought of incentives to get Ore motivated when she was first getting started.
They created a board and established a points system where every time she spoke a Yoruba word or phrase, she would get a point which would be translated into money later. At the end of the week, she would put her accumulated funds towards purchasing something for herself or using them to help less-privileged children.
But Ore's efforts have paid dividends on another level - her ability to communicate with her grandparents. Soji said their family members back home have been "blown away" by how well Ore speaks Yoruba.
"Initially, dollar signs got her into it, but now it's a higher purpose, a higher sense of fulfilment that is getting her going."
The couple finds it easier to teach their younger daughter Damilola, 4, because Ore is able to come in and offer support. The two sisters sometimes converse in Yoruba.
Soji said while the couple wants their kids to integrate into North American culture, they still want them to have and maintain knowledge of their roots and heritage to help give them a sense of identity and self-esteem.
"It helps those kids understand their parents' culture and language to respect other people, to celebrate multiculturalism," he said. "It gives a sense that, OK, other people have their own culture or way of doing things as well, so you celebrate other people because you want to be celebrated as well."
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Organizations: Saskatchewan Intercultural Association, North American

Geographic location: Saskatoon, Nigeria, Saskatchewan

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