by Victor Oshisada
NIGERIA is said to possess three peculiarities: Insecurity, corruption and mono-product economy. It is unfortunate that the fourth is gradually creeping in. Before long, if care is not taken, our local languages shall be extinct. Why and how? It is necessary to answer the question: “What is a language?”
Language is part of culture. It is the chief mechanism by which humans communicate with each other. On the authority of Andy Crump, an ecologist, teacher and writer, there are an estimated 4,000 different languages spoken in the world today. “Many more have died out with the passing of time and peoples”, he added, Explaining further: “Of the so-called mother-tongue languages, over one billion people have Chinese as their mother tongue, although Chinese is more correctly a collection of eight different languages. Of the other languages, 350 million people have English as their mother tongue, about 250 million Spanish and estimated 200 million Hindi.
Still quoting Crump: “In reality, English proves to be the world’s most common language as it is the official language in a variety of countries throughout the world. With regard to official languages, English covers estimated 1.4 billion people, Chinese one billion, Hindi over 700,000 and Spanish 280,000”. Surprisingly, Andy Crump is silent on French. We may be curious to inquire: “What is the situation in Nigeria about local languages?” The Chief Executive Officer of The Bible Society of Nigeria, Dr. Fred Odutola, once disclosed that out of the 513 languages in the country, eight have gone into extinction. In what ways are our local languages in danger of extinction?
It is a gradual process. I am happy that due to their conservative nature, Hausa of the north may be exempted or they may be slower in the process than the southerners who are too passionate with foreign culture. Besides, Hausa is spoken in most parts of West Africa. Igbo and Yoruba are not. We southerners are Anglo-phile and Anglo-mania, or let me say that we are Euro-phile and Euro-mania. That is, anything which is European is more preferable to us than local ones. For instance, parents prefer speaking to their children and wards in English. In an average Nigerian home, it is fashionable compelling the use of English. In some homes, an indigenous tongue is a taboo. This is the height of lunacy, to my thinking. How many Europeans are speaking our own Igbo, Edo or Yoruba tongues with their children at homes? Our local languages are receding into oblivion, because of our stark ignorance. We believe that English or French speaking is a hallmark of civilisation. It is the delight of parents to hear children conversing with guests in English as an evidence of civilisation, that is. They take umbrage at speaking to their children in native tongue. This is wrong. Most educated Nigerians, particularly, the Yoruba, cannot speak a sentence without an admixture of English words. It is shameful.
The practice of speaking in native languages must not deter our kids from writing or speaking in English. The argument of most parents or guardians is that by speaking in English, their children excel in their School Certificate and other examinations. They miss the point, because such children perform woefully, after all. The erstwhile Federal Minister of Education, the late Professor Babatunde Fafunwa, was umpteen times drumming it to our ears that local languages were basic to the efficient understanding of foreign languages; one could not successfully study English or French without proper mastery of our own. The Chinese and Japanese excel in science and technology because of their superlative predilection for their native tongues in which their textbooks are written for their children. With time, as a nation, we shall lose grip of our local languages.
In The History of the Yoruba, The Rev. Samuel Johnson mentioned cognomen or attributive names (that is, Oriki). What is cognomen when students are not fluent in the Yoruba language? Mother-tongue helps to promote literacy, assist children to imbibe good morals, and sustain culture. If our native languages are discarded, not only shall we lose our identities, we shall also extinguish the languages. And we can best avoid this by reading and writing in our language. Our children perform poorly in their examinations because of their deficiency in local languages. Community integration is made possible by local language. Ask a Yoruba or Igbo man what is the vernacular translation of N300, N400 or N500, he shall be guessing. Most of us cannot count numerals from 1 to 15 without resorting to English numeration. Parents and guardians are not lacking in excuses for their philia for foreign tongue.
Parents labour under the illusion that speaking in English encourages their children to perfect the language preparatory to their school certificate examinations. But most of them crash in the examinations despite the knack of mimicking the foreign phonetics or intonations, which they cannot write down correctly. Invariably, they speak what they cannot write on papers. Eventually, they are unable to speak any of the parents’ tongues and the foreign ones, thus becoming aliens in their fatherland. One Igbo lady returned from the United States after a long stay to regret that she was not speaking mother-tongue to her child when she was there. The late Dr. Tai Solarin of Mayflower School, Ikenne-Remo, Ogun State, won Nigerians’ praise by encouraging his two children from British wife to be fluent in Yoruba and Remo dialect; a feat that appears insurmountable and dreaded. It is unfortunate that most of us do not value what we have. English is today a world language because of what the English people make of it. I am not advocating that we must not speak foreign tongue with our young ones. Far from it!
My point is that the local tongues must not be subdued, like Latin. True it is: “We learn to speak by speaking “. This is not enough. There is another way. We also learn to speak by reading. Therefore, Nigerians must not dump local languages for English to gain proficiency. Proficiency at speaking or writing English is attainable principally by reading good literature (novels); not catch-penny wishy-washy novels, of course. In my days, there were Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and his other series, simplified versions of William Shakespeare’s prose series – Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and the like, Alice in Wonderland, Coral Island, etcetera. And of course, the biographies of personalities.
Parents must play their roles by speaking local tongues at home. Teachers must also ensure that the period of the children in schools is for the use of English. The government’s responsibility remains in formulating positive policy to prevent the slide of our languages into obliteration. In this respect, Edo and Lagos States have started the ball rolling. Recently, the African Academy of Language (ACALAN) proposed experimentation with those cross-border languages of Fulfulde, Mandekan and Hausa as additional working languages of the organisation. This was in conformity with Article 62 (C) of the ECOWAS Treaty that mandated promoting the learning and the dissemination of a West African language in community integration, apart from the current official working languages of English and Portuguese. Also, Edo State government concluded plans to introduce the study of Bini language into the state’s curriculum. Governor Adams Oshiomole who is the patron of the Benin Cultural Heritage Centre, said: “Our children must be able to read and write in the Bini languages”. I pray that the intention is matched with actions.
And in Lagos State, the House of Assembly directed the Ministry of Education to ensure that public and private schools in the state teach native languages at both primary and secondary schools. This is because most schools in the state shun local languages against the provisions of the basic education curriculum. Member of Lagos House of Assembly, Segun Olulade, set the ball rolling when he moved the motion, June 21, 2012. He implored the lawmakers to save the local languages, as they are powerful instruments of preserving cultural heritage. His words: “Our wealth of cultural and traditional heritage has the potential to translate into socio-economic gains”.