by Adedayo Ademuwagun
Language is an important part of any society and a principal component of a people’s culture. It is not only a means by which people communicate, it is also a distinct part of their identity.
In Nigeria, there are more than 200 indigenous languages. There are concerns though that fewer and fewer people are using these native languages, and that this trend could conclusively lead to multiple language deaths over the next few generations.
Language death, or linguicide, is a process where the proficiency of a certain people in their language continually decreases to the point in time when there are no fluent or native speakers of the language.
The best documented example of language death occurred in North America, where over a hundred indigenous languages have gone extinct since European colonists arrived there in the 18th century.
One of the extinct Native American languages is Tonkawa. The Tonkawa people were a normadic tribe that lived in the Texas area. Colonists decimated the tribe through warfare and the introduction of disease. Some surviving members of the tribe were isolated and the rest were assimilated into the American culture. Members of the Tonkawa tribe now speak English.
The process of language death usually occurs over time, when a people become bilingual in a language and gradually switch to the new language, such that less and less of the native language is passed on from one generation to the next generation. With time, the language ceases to be the language that the young ones learn first and speak best, and then it eventually vanishes from everyday usage.
Nigerian history provides an interesting context for the language death phenomenon. 100 years ago, less than 5% of Nigerians spoke a foreign language. But during colonisation, the British introduced English to “civilise” the people and facilitate Western education. Then things began to take a shift.
As people got educated and learned English, a lot of them switched to English as their preferred language, and more people began communicating in English instead of their native language.
These people who switched language allegiance raised their children to speak English as the preferred language, in effect side-lining their native language. This had a ripple effect on that new generation, and as time passed and more people adopted English, less and less people were transmitting elements of their native language down to the younger generation, and this has continued till date.
There are many reasons why Nigerians shift preference to English. For instance, in the colonial era when Western education was new, it was prestigious to be able to speak English. Locals wanted their children to go to school and speak English like the white man and the educated elite. They thought that speaking the native tongue was crude and that speaking English showed refinement. This perception has been continuously pass down the generations to this day.
Pius Adejoh is a doctor at the Department of Sociology, University of Lagos. He says that this is correct.
“This mindset stems from the colonial era,” he says. “We were socialised into believing that whatever is indigenous is demeaning. By virtue of that, as a society, we accepted the perception as true and projected the same to our children.
“This is why we prefer to raise our children to speak English but we do not do the same for our own language. It is because we’ve been made to believe that civilisation is western, that to be civilized is to be western. It is with this perception that we raise our children.”
Today, a typical Nigerian child from a middle-class or upper-class home does not or cannot speak their mother language. Technically, English has replaced the native tongue as their first language, because it is the language that they first learned and the language that they speak best. In some cases, the only language the child can speak is English.
Some adolescents and youths who are affected say that they wished to learn the mother language, but they were not allowed or encourage to learn to speak or write in the heritage language. In school, some teachers tell kids that speaking the vernacular is not good, and at home, parents enforce the same notion often under the impression that letting a child speak the indigenous language would corrupt the child and portray the child as being unrefined. Furthermore, some parents imagine that letting the child speak the native language would interfere with their learning of English. But this is not a proven idea.
Ibi Agiobu-Kemmer is a professor at the University of Lagos and the head of the Department of Psychology.
She says, “Learning a native language does no psychological harm to the child. Such notions are ignorant. There is nothing wrong for a child to learn two languages during childhood. In fact, children are naturally capable of learning multiple languages when they are young, and providing them with the opportunity will give them a head start in linguistic development. Besides, children need to have local competence. They need to be competent in their mother language.”
With fewer Nigerian children acquiring fluency in their native language, there is a strong case for linguicide not only for the major languages but the minority ones as well.
However, it is not just about the endangerment of these languages. It is also about the endangerment of the elements of the languages such as the proverbs, the body language as well as centuries of indigenous knowledge of medicine, art and other fields, which are uniquely expressed in the languages.
“Failing to transmit your language to your young ones has serious implications for who they become,” says Dr Adejoh. “It could result in an identity crisis. This is because your language is part and parcel of your identity. Your being is communicated through the language you speak. The bottom line is, when you fail to teach the young ones their own language, you diminish their identity.”