Not yet requiem for indigenous languages
The United Nations has chosen February 21 as International Mother Language Day (IMLD). The UN set aside the day in order to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of Dhaka, Jagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bangla as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh. The theme for this year emphasizes the importance of using mother tongues in early years of schooling for children. AJIBOLA AMZAT (Features Editor), STEPHEN TANBA and VICTORIA OLISA examine the significance of February 21 against the background of the survival of mother tongues in Nigeria.
Recently, somewhere in Ikotun area, a suburb of Lagos, a middle-aged woman was walking her daughter to a school nearby, on a Friday morning. The little girl, aged 3 or thereabout, pointed at a straying puppy, and said excitedly, “A-ja”. The woman promptly corrected her, “it is a dog.” As if she did not hear her mother, the girl stretched her finger at the little dog and repeated: “A-ja”. Determined, and in a mild chastising tone, the mother stressed her instruction, “Oluwaseyi, it is not aja, it is a dog. Say it, d-u-r-r-g!”
Many Nigerian parents encourage their children to speak the English language at home as a way of helping them to get a hang on the language. Ability to speak fluent English language is like a passport to a rewarding career, many Nigerian parents believe.
In a study conducted in 2007, fifty percent of Igbo parents in Imo State and eighty percent in Lagos State spoke mostly English or a mixture of English and Igbo to their children. Other studies measuring indigenous language competencies among children in Igbo land and beyond established that an alarming number of children could not speak their mother tongue. The situation is not much different with Yoruba parents.
At schools the story is the same, the English language is privileged above mother tongues especially in most schools in the Nigerian cities. The speaking of “vernacular” is indeed prohibited within four walls of many schools, nursery schools included.
Language endangerment occurs at different levels. There are languages which a people speak, but yet are subordinated to a dominant language. Examples of such languages are several languages indigenous to Africa in relation to the English language.
A prominent Kenyan writer and scholar, Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, once wrote:
“English became more than a language: it was the language and all the other had to bow before it in deference. Thus, one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes, the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford.”
The experience of Ngũgĩ is the same as that of students in most Nigerian schools.
Linguistic experts warn that a language may be going into extinction if the speaker population is declining or the number of those who connect their ethnic identity with the language (whether or not they speak the language) is declining. Other factors are the age range of the speakers, the domains of use of the language, official recognition of languages within the nation or region and means of transmission (whether children are learning the language at home or being taught the language in schools).
Though about 400 languages indigenous to Nigeria are still living, 29 of them are endangered already, according to United Nations Education, scientific and Cultural organisation (UNESCO). And any more are threatened.
Though the Nigerian National Policy on Education states that, “The medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the language of the environment for the first three years,” most schools, especially the private schools, hardly comply.
The policy “has been very difficult to implement because of the attitude of the educated class who will rather have their children taught English Language right from the cradle,” said Professor Olufunke Lawal of the University of Lagos during her inaugural lecture paper, Developing the African Child’s Imagination Through Literature Education, many years ago.
Part of the reasons for this trend is that the Nigerian society has accepted the English language as a possible medium for attaining career and social height.
According to Professor Lawal, “parents out of ignorance insulate the children from the mother tongue to induce facility in the use of English Language thus depriving children of a basic source of education and imaginative development”.
In an interview with The Guardian, the Head of Department, Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, Prof. Oladipo Ajiboye Jacob said most parents wrongly believed that when a child tries to speak their mother language, it would hinder them from speaking simple and correct English.
“I considered that to be a fallacy, that is not how the human is designed,” he said.
Even some academics often justify their preference for the English language because they believe indigenous languages lack words and expressions for teaching or discussing Science and technology.
The Nigeria media also do not help matters. The mass media in Africa is predominated by foreign and colonial languages, said Professor Abiodun Salawu who has carried out several researches on Indigenous Language Media. In Anglophone Africa, the English language media are the mainstream media, he stated in his inaugural lecture at North-West University, South Africa. Most of the media contents are produced in English language; hence, the majority Nigerians consumes their news product in the foreign language.
If nothing is done, many languages indigenous to Nigeria may die.
In UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger published in 2010, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.
“With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages,” says the UNESCO report.
Speaking of the importance of mother tongues, Prof. Ajiboye said indigenous language is the bedrock upon which a nation that desires to attain new heights is being established, so the first three years of the child is supposed to be taught in the mother tongue.
“The national policy on education state that it is compulsory for a child to take at least one indigenous language subject in secondary school, but today there is nothing of such.”
He cited Professor Babatunde Fafunwa’s twelve years research project in primary and secondary schools where students performed better in an examination when taught in their indigenous language.
He said Nigeria could only develop technologically if citizens learn to use their mother tongues more than their foreign languages, adding that the child, parents, society and government have different roles to play.
“What we have in the school curriculum are just paperwork, in a real sense no implementation by the government. Parents should debunk the idea that indigenous language will limit the child from speaking English fluently, they should encourage children to build interest in their mother tongue, and then the Government should sensitize members of the society not to influence children speaking their language with peer pressure.
Parents out of ignorance insulate the children from the mother tongue to induce facility in the use of English Language thus depriving children of a basic source of education and imaginative development.
“Children at their tender age can learn over seven languages, so if the government made it compulsory that all tertiary institution must offer one or two indigenous languages as their general course, then students will be forced to take it serious while in the primary and secondary schools.”
Speaking on the same issue, Dr. Folorunso Ilori also of the Department, Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, Unilag, said the indigenous language enables a man to have identity unique to his environment.
He, however, expressed concern about the lackadaisical attitude of African parents to the survival of mother tongues. “They do not know the basis of the importance of language and how it works. African parents are selfish, they learnt from their own parents’ culture and traditions and were able to speak their language fluently but fail to impact all these knowledge on their children believing that speaking indigenous language affects their English speaking.”
The don canvassed a change of attitude. He said 90 percent of children that were deprived of speaking their indigenous language end up speaking imperfect English but when a child is allowed to learn his mother tongue without truncation, it will serve as a foundation for other languages.
“The world is celebrating Prof. Wole Soyinka because he has a good Yoruba experience, he can speak Yoruba very well and he was able to blend all these together through his experience while growing up.”
He noted that the government policy on school curriculum, especially at the tertiary level does not provide for the promotion and promotion of indigenous languages.
“Yet the neglect of our indigenous languages has never improved our fluency in English even if we are to present ourselves to the Western world. Our indigenous language is what defines us, multilingualism is an advantage, not a curse,” he said.
Prof. Samuel Timothy-Asobele who had written more 40 books linguistic books on different Nigerian languages including a dictionary of Kaba language said indigenous language can best be used to dialogue with people whose lifeways one understands very well.
Asobele commended the efforts of musicians such as the late Fela Ransom Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister for enhancing indigenous language through music.
Meanwhile as a way of addressing the declining popularity of Yoruba language among the young and old in Lagos, the Lagos State House of Assembly has directed that teaching and learning of the indigenous language be made compulsory in all public and private schools in the State.
The House, in a Motion, ruled that the Yoruba language should be taught for at least three periods in a week for proper effect.
Chairman, House Committee on Health, Segun Olulade, who called for the promotion of Yoruba Language, culture and tradition, said that it is not acceptable to call the Yoruba language a vernacular.
Earlier, Africa Union (AU) has set up the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) to promote indigenous African languages for official use in education at all levels, in government and the judiciary at all levels, in law enforcement, commerce and industry, as well as in mass communication.
With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.
The Academy is also tasked to encourage the further development particularly of indigenous trans-border languages so as to foster greater educational, cultural, commercial, and social interactions among their native speakers; and get resource persons who already have expertise in the development of one or more indigenous African languages to go and assist in the development of still other such languages.
It remains to be seen if the initiative is bearing any fruit yet.Several studies have shown the effectiveness of mother-tongue or indigenous language for instructional purposes, said professor Salawu.
The don, however, regrets that many African languages are not present in the cyberspace because many Africans are not using their languages for socialising online.
“It is then of little wonder that researches into the use of African languages in the social and digital media are a rarity.”
The Headmistress, Grace of God Private School Ikeja, Mrs. C. Thionvien said her school has already introduced Yoruba language as a subject even before the Lagos state government’s declaration.
She advised the government to emphasize the benefits of speaking indigenous language both to parents and children.